In recent years, more and more Taiwanese media workers have been worried that press freedom has been eroding since the lifting of martial law in 1987. In fact, Taiwan's ranking in Freedom House's Annual Press Freedom Report has been regressing since 2008.
In addition to the “embedded marketing” practice which cloaks advertising as news and makes journalistic articles less reliable, the mainland China government has extended influence on the Taiwan public sphere through news industry acquisitions.
Influence of mainland China
On May 7, 2012, a public hearing was held because the Want Want China Times group plans to acquire the second largest cable television system in Taiwan. Since Taiwanese businessman Tsai Eng-Meng purchased the media group in November 2008, China Times, one of the most influential newspapers in Taiwan, has made a subsequent change in editorial policy [zh] in the direction of softening criticism of the Ma administration, Beijing, or improvements in cross-strait ties.
Image from Reject China Times Facebook Campaign Page
More than 50 social science and journalism professors in Taiwan signed up to the ‘Reject China Times’ campaign [zh] in February 2012, in response to Tsai's interview with the Washington Post, in which he claimed that the June 4 Massacre (Tiananmen Square) did not happen.
The campaign statement pointed out that:
In fact, since Mr. Tsai purchased China Times, a large number of “self-censorship” incidents to “erase words that are critical of China” have taken place and the knowledge community has been very critical of such practice. Mr. Tsai obtains his capital from China and has turned into a media tycoon. His interview in the Washington Post which praised the authoritative mainland Chinese government is repressive towards the development of democracy and human rights in China. Such ridiculous comment has also proven our worries that the Chinese government has control over Taiwanese media, our public opinion and our citizens’ rights to truthful reports.
The further expansion of Want Want China Times from printed media to cable television has undoubtedly alerted many Taiwanese. In fact in the recent public hearing, Tsai admitted that he had received money from the mainland Chinese authorities to publish “news” that propagates a positive imagine of mainland China. However, his defence was that “embedded marketing” has been a common practice in Taiwan and there is no reason to stop China Times from doing it.
Journalism Professor Chang Chin-hwa pointed out that such political advertisement is a potential threat to national security (via a report from ‘Reject China Times‘ [zh] campaign website:
Professor Chang Chin-hwa is worried and reminds the public that “not only our government is buying news, now the People Republic of China (PRC) is buying news in Taiwan”. She urged the Control Yuan
member Frank Wu to start an investigation and condemn such practices, “in this incident, the China Times is the prime suspect. Want Want China Times takes the money, however, it not only sells its own news, but helps other newspapers to sell their news! The Control Yuan has already pointed out [in 2010] that such practice has affected the professionalism in journalism and posed threat to our national security.”
For years, the issue of “embedded marketing” has been criticized by many media workers. Back in 2010, an experienced journalist Dennis Huang (黃哲斌), quit his job on the China Times and launched an online protest [zh] against embedded marketing:
從昨天起，我離開了工作十六年又五個月的《中國時報》。 我越來越難獨善其身、越來越難假裝沒看到，其他版面被「業配新聞」吞噬侵蝕的肥大事實，新聞變成論字計價的商品，價值低落的芭樂公關稿一篇篇送到編輯桌上，「這是業配，一個字都不能刪」。 然後，它們像是外星來的異形，盤據了正常新聞版面，記者努力採訪的稿件被擠壓、被丟棄。記者與主管被賦予業績壓力，不得不厚著面皮向採訪對象討預算、要業配。
Yesterday I left China Times, where I have worked for 16 years and 5 months. It is more and more difficult to focus on my personal interests and pretend not to see the ugly truth that the embedded advertisement (cloaked as news) gradually invades more and more pages in the newspapers. News becomes a kind of good that we can calculate its value by counting the number of words. Trashy news releases are sent to the editors one by one, and the editors are told, ‘this is embedded marketing and we cannot change any word in it.’ Later, they invade the pages for ‘real’ news like aliens, and those articles written by hard-working reporters are shortened or thrown away. Both reporters and their supervisors are given the responsibility for selling news, so they need to ask the interviewees shamelessly for budgets and embedded marketing.
我更相信，「人生總有非賣品」。 例如，讀者的信任；例如，專業判斷與良知；例如，自己的人格與報社的信譽；例如，寫或不寫的自由權利。 業配新聞破壞了這一切，奪走了這一切，它以每字一、兩百元的代價，將新聞變成廉售的開架商品。
I believe that there is something in your life not for sale. For example, the trust of my readers, professional judgment, my conscience, my integrity, the reputation of a newspaper company, and the freedom to decide whether to write or not. However, the embedded marketing destroys all of them and takes them away. It makes news a piece of cheap merchandise on a shelf.
In various kinds of embedded marketing, the most arguable one is government sponsored news. The government pays the media with taxpayers’ hard earned money. I like to put it like this: ‘the government puts its left hand into our pocket to get the money to bribe the media, and then it can extend its right hand into our brain.’ …[By doing so] the government does not need to defend its policy or communicate with the citizens. Now the government is so lazy that it does not want to write its own propaganda. They just need to buy up the news. This is the most tedious and obscene kind of media control.