Reporters Without Borders Secretary General Christophe Deloire presents the annual World Press Freedom Index. (Philippe Lopez/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
Taiwan appeared to make a sudden leap forward in press freedom this year, moving up six places to secure the 45th spot in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
However, its climb should concern people about the state of media freedom — especially in Asia, according to Reporters Without Borders, the media watchdog nonprofit that releases the annual ranking.
That’s because Taiwan’s jump “does not reflect real improvements, but rather a global worsening of the situation in the rest of the world,” the group said in a statement. In particular, it masks the decline of media freedoms in other Asian countries, as well as the growing threat of “press freedom predators” in the region, such as China and North Korea.
“In this area, the situation reflects the global situation that prevails in the 2017 RSF World Press Freedom Index: a world in which strongmen are on the rise and attacks on the media have become commonplace, even in democracies,” the group said.
The Paris-based organization (also known internationally by its French name, Reporters sans Frontières, or RSF) pointed to China exerting economic and political pressure to influence Taiwanese media. Taiwan is a self-governing democratic island that China considers part of its territory, and Beijing is extremely sensitive to questions about Taiwan’s status.
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It is not unusual for some Taiwanese media outlets to take stances that echo Chinese Communist Party propaganda, Taipei RSF bureau director Cédric Alviani told The Washington Post by phone Wednesday, which the United Nations has declared World Press Freedom Day.
“In Taiwan, the Taiwanese tycoons also have their own businesses in China,” Alviani said. “It’s easy for China to put pressure on the business executives and say, ‘Okay, you have to be nice with the media you own. We want you to cover the story this way or we don’t want you to mention that.’ ”
Alviani also pointed to Apple TV recently allegedly blocking a satirical comedy show that is critical of the Chinese government — ironically titled “China Uncensored” — not only in mainland China but also in Hong Kong and Taiwan, which are not subject to Chinese law. Reporters Without Borders last month condemned the tech company’s move as setting a dangerous precedent for “international corporate submission to the demands of Chinese censorship.”
“This kind of self-censorship is much more serious than the one a single reporter would apply to himself,” Alviani said.
Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr told The Post “there was a couple day period” when the show was not available in Taiwan and Hong Kong but that it has since been made accessible there.
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Despite the obstacles, Taiwan continues to hold the highest rank for press freedom among Asian countries, followed by South Korea (at 63rd place) and Mongolia (69th), according to this year’s index. Coverage of political scandals in South Korea — which led to the impeachment and ouster of Park Geun-hye this year — proved that the media there maintained its independence, the group said.
“However, the public debate about relations with North Korea, one of the main national issues, is hampered by a national security law under which any article or broadcast ‘favourable’ to North Korea is punishable by imprisonment,” the group pointed out.
It was Taiwan’s relative freedom that led Reporters Without Borders to decide this year to open its first Asia bureau in Taipei, rather than in Hong Kong or elsewhere in Asia.
Hong Kong dropped four places on the World Press Freedom Index from 2016, coming in at 73rd this year. Media there continue to face challenges when covering stories that are critical of mainland China, and reporters have faced physical intimidation and oppression.
“This is the kind of thing that made us think twice, because if we open an office in Hong Kong, our communications and safety might not be ensured,” Alviani said. “To open an original bureau, you need to find a place that is stable, a place where you could foresee what is happening in coming years.”
[PostLive: World Press Freedom Index 2017]
Alviani said that RSF journalists have been reporting from Taipei since last month, in a sort of “soft opening” for the new bureau, and that it will be fully operational in the coming months.
Part of the bureau’s focus will be on the countries that hold “many of the worst kinds of records” for media freedom in the Asia-Pacific region, including:
- The world’s biggest prisons for journalists and bloggers: China (176th) and Vietnam (175th).
- Most dangerous countries for journalists: Pakistan (139th), the Philippines (127th) and Bangladesh (146th).
- Second-biggest number of “press freedom predators” at the head of the world’s worst dictatorships: Laos (170th), China (176th) and North Korea (180th).
The group called out Chinese President Xi Jinping as “the planet’s leading censor and press freedom predator” and one of the biggest reasons China ranks 176th among 180 countries on this year’s index. Only Syria, Turkmenistan, Eritrea and North Korea are ranked lower.
On Wednesday, World Press Freedom Day, China further clamped down on the media, issuing regulations that go into effect June 1, according to Reuters.
The rules “apply to all political, economic, military, or diplomatic reports or opinion articles on blogs, websites, forums, search engines, instant messaging apps and all other platforms that select or edit news and information,” Reuters reported. “All such platforms must have editorial staff who are approved by the national or local government Internet and information offices, while their workers must get training and reporting credentials from the central government.”
The Chinese government’s censorship and restrictions on media and the Internet, combined with its growing economic and political power, have the potential to affect other countries and private companies, Alviani said.
“China’s philosophy is more like everyone is free to do whatever they want to report — but within a certain limit, and this limit is never very clear,” he said. “In philosophical terms, freedom has to be unconditional. If you’re free within certain limits, you are not free.”
The Washington Post and Reporters Without Borders held a conversation on freedom of press around the world. The program featured a presentation of the 2017 World Press Freedom Index followed by a conversation with Tom Malinowski, Former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and journalists from Syria, Turkey and Canada, moderated by The Post’s Dana Priest. (Washington Post Live)