Freedom of the Press 2017 - Taiwan

Press Freedom Status: 
PFS Score: 
Political Environment: 
Economic Environment: 

Key Developments in 2016:

  • In October, U.S. entertainment executive Dan Mintz’s bid to acquire the Taiwanese television network Eastern Broadcasting Company broke down amid concerns about how his extensive business activities in China might affect regulatory approval for the deal.
  • In December, former president Ma Ying-jeou won a defamation suit against a media personality who had accused of accepting secret political donations, though the court ordered a smaller compensation payment than Ma had requested.

Executive Summary

Taiwan’s media environment is one of the freest in Asia, and the vigorous and diverse press reports aggressively on government policies and alleged official wrongdoing. Politicians continue to file defamation cases against journalists, but the courts are independent and generally uphold press freedom in their decisions. Media regulators are also considered to be independent, and in recent years they—supported by public pressure—have scrutinized mergers and acquisitions in the media industry that raised concerns about ownership concentration and the indirect influence of China’s government on news content in Taiwan. Journalists rarely encounter physical violence, and other attempts to obstruct their work are countered by robust professional organizations and media freedom advocacy groups.

Legal Environment: 9 / 30

The constitution provides for freedoms of speech and of the press, and the government and independent courts generally respect these rights in practice.

The publication of defamatory words or pictures is punishable by up to two years in prison. While prison sentences are extremely rare, journalists have faced criminal and civil defamation cases in recent years based on complaints from politicians and other powerful figures.

Multiple libel suits brought against political commentator Clara Chou in 2015 made their way through the courts during 2016. In July, prosecutors in Taipei announced that there was insufficient evidence to pursue a case brought by Hung Hsiu-chu, a leading member of the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party who served as the deputy legislative speaker until February, after Chou questioned the authenticity of her master’s degree.

Then president Ma Ying-jeou had brought another case against Chou after she alleged in late 2014 that he accepted some NT$200 million (US$6 million) in secret political donations from Ting Hsin International Group, a business conglomerate that was allegedly involved in several food-safety scandals. In December 2015, the Taipei District Court found Chou innocent, pointing to an article in the criminal code stating that defamation cases cannot be pursued if the defendant had ample reason to believe in the veracity of the claims. Ma appealed the decision in 2016 and pressed his arguments at a Taiwan High Court hearing in August. The appeal was pending at year’s end.

In December 2016, Ma won a civil defamation suit against media personality Wu Tzu-chia. The case stemmed from a 2014 online article in which Wu alleged that Ma and his campaign had received an under-the-table donation of NT$1 billion (US$30 million) from Ting Hsin International Group.  The Taipei District Court found that Wu lacked evidence for his claims and ordered him to issue a public apology in major Taiwan newspapers and to pay Ma NT$1.8 million (US$56,000)—far less than the NT$3 million (US$93,000) in damages Ma had sought. At year’s end, it was not clear whether Wu would appeal the decision.

Taiwan’s 2005 Freedom of Government Information Law enables public access to information held by government agencies, including financial audit reports and documents about administrative guidance. Such records are ultimately safeguarded by the National Archives Administration, which was formally established in 2001, and an archives law that has been in force since 2002.

Print media are free from state regulation, and broadcast media are no longer subject to licensing and programming reviews by the Government Information Office, which was formally dissolved in 2012. The National Communications Commission (NCC) is Taiwan’s main media regulator, tasked with awarding licenses and enforcing broadcasting guidelines. It is generally regarded as independent, though it has faced criticism for some licensing decisions in recent years, and contentious cases draw public and political pressure.

No license is required to practice journalism in Taiwan, nor are journalists required to join a particular union or professional organization in order to work legally, though foreign journalists must register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

Established in 1995, the independent Association of Taiwan Journalists works to protect local journalists’ rights and welfare and promotes professional ethics among Taiwan’s news workers.

Political Environment: 8 / 40 (↑1)

Taiwan has an abundance of print, broadcast, and online news outlets that reflect a wide array of viewpoints. The media have some history of polarization, with many outlets that are sympathetic to either the KMT, now in opposition, or the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which won national elections in January 2016. However, diversity has grown with the emergence of online outlets in recent years, and the KMT’s long-standing influence over the media in general has ebbed along with its political fortunes.

The news media enjoy relatively open access to most public institutions. However, a rule issued in 2014 limits permanent press passes for the Legislative Yuan (parliament) to journalists who are employed by a registered commercial media company that devotes at least 60 percent of its coverage to national news. Other journalists can obtain temporary passes. In February 2016, the parliament’s deputy speaker, Tsai Chi-chang, held a forum with independent journalists to discuss possible reforms of the access policy, but no changes had been announced by year’s end.

Journalists have at times faced pressure from their employers to self-censor on certain topics, including those considered sensitive by the Chinese government. A number of Taiwanese media owners have business interests and political connections in China, or draw advertising revenue from Chinese companies, which can make them wary of upsetting Beijing.

Reporters occasionally experience interference from officials in the course of their work, but attempts by local authorities to limit press access to protests and demonstrations in recent years have largely been rebuffed thanks to strong responses from journalists’ organizations.

Physical violence against journalists is rare, and both local and foreign reporters are generally able to cover the news in Taiwan without fear of reprisal.

Economic Environment: 8 / 30

Taiwan is home to hundreds of privately owned newspapers and radio stations. Satellite television systems likewise carry a broad array of channels. Legislation approved in 2003 barred the government and political party officials from holding positions in broadcast media companies, and required government entities and political parties to divest themselves of all broadcasting assets. The internet is not restricted by the government; about 80 percent of the population accessed the medium in 2016.

A series of proposed mergers and acquisitions in the media industry have foundered in recent years due to objections from regulators, civil society groups, and others regarding excessive concentration of ownership and the danger that major conglomerates’ business interests in China could influence media content.  Dan Mintz, a U.S.-based entertainment mogul, reached agreements in 2015 to buy a controlling stake in Eastern Broadcasting Company—Taiwan’s largest privately owned Mandarin-language television network—from Taiwan-based Eastern Media International Corporation and the American private equity firm Carlyle Group. However, the deal fell through in October 2016, due in part to Eastern Broadcasting’s concern that it would face difficulty gaining regulatory approval because of Mintz’s deep ties to China. He is the founder and chief executive of DMG Entertainment, which is affiliated with DMG Yinji, a group of companies Mintz formed in China with Chinese partners.

Eastern Broadcasting subsequently became an acquisition target for Taiwan Optical Platform, a major telecommunications and cable television operator. Earlier in the year, Taiwan Optical had purchased two cable television providers in southern Taiwan through its largest shareholder, Kaiyueh Investment Co.  The deal drew protests from antimonopoly activists who argued that the structure of the transaction was designed to obviate the need for approval from the NCC, which must sign off on mergers between cable providers. The Ministry of Economic Affairs had initially approved the acquisitions, finding that NCC approval was not required. Critics of the deal also said Taiwan Optical, particularly in light of its move to purchase a 65 percent stake in Eastern Broadcasting Company, was becoming an excessively large media organization. The NCC was investigating the Kaiyueh transactions at year’s end.

The regulator was also reviewing two other major deals involving cable and telecommunications firms: Asia Pacific Telecom’s proposed acquisition of Taiwan Broadband Communications and Morgan Stanley’s planned acquisition of China Network Systems. The NCC noted that it was looking into how the deals were being financed, as some critics questioned whether they involved funding from China or would violate bans on investment in the media by government, political party, or military entities.

There are few significant restrictions on the means of news production and distribution in Taiwan. The ease with which new media outlets can be established, combined with moderate operating costs, have allowed numerous print and broadcast media outlets to spring up since martial law was lifted in 1987. In the last two decades, online media have also flourished in the country, with citizen journalists and media organizations of all sizes establishing blogs and websites.

Media organizations are required by law to label paid content as advertisements. However, not all outlets have consistently complied with the rule, meaning advertisers have paid for what appears to be journalistic content.

Some traditional outlets have struggled financially, due in part to increased competition from online and other digital media. In December 2016, for example, the NCC called upon the terrestrial television broadcaster China Television (CTV) to explain how it planned to staunch a dramatic loss in advertising revenue and strengthen its financial position.