A new group in Taiwan wants to address the threats independent reporting in the country faces on multiple fronts. New advertising models and a series of buyouts by Chinese companies are changing Taiwan's media landscape.
"If you claim to be an independent media operation in Taiwan, you automatically lose half of your credibility" - that was journalist Mario Yang's critical assessment at the recent founding forum for an association of independent journalists in Taiwan. Yang also says the public generally doesn't trust domestic media and that journalists enjoy little respect.
In contrast to the People's Republic of China, Taiwan's mass media have a pluralistic orientation. The internet is not censored, and the country has freedom of expression laws.
Despite a more colorful media landscape, however, the public opinion of news reporting is dropping. The reason: government broadcasters dominate the electronic media market, while newspapers are controlled by conglomerates steered partly from abroad.
Dwindling ad revenue
Media scholar Chen Shuen-Hsiao says a primary reason for Taiwanese audiences' skepticism results from the media's close ties to the political apparatus. The government is now the biggest advertising client for press outlets, occasionally taking out full-page ads in newspapers and magazines. The researcher describes this as a long-term liability for publishing houses' reputations.
Chen Shuen-Hsiao also sees a shift in businesses' approach to advertising as a further factor in the media's loss of credibility. Their campaigns, he says, are based far more on product placement and surreptitious advertising - which consumers perceive as disruptive.
But reporters critical of these developments are hoping their newly formed association will usher in a new era of independent journalists in Taiwan.
They plan to create their own online platform for neutral reporting. And the group has already seen a number of early successes. A series of scandals involving expropriated assets, cases of the bird flu and the use of dangerous pesticides in agriculture were first brought to light by independent journalists. The big media companies only picked up on the same reports later.
China's creeping influence
A number of companies from mainland China are using their impressive capital reserves to buy up Taiwanese press outlets, lending Taiwan's hulking neighbor to the West considerable influence over public opinion. The Shanghai company Want Want, for example, owns two television broadcasters and one of Taiwan's most popular national newspapers. Rice cake manufacturer Want Want is rumored to have close ties to leaders in Beijing.
After Want Want's takeover, many journalists critical of China lost their jobs. Others left voluntarily, saying they faced limits on criticizing Beijing. The food company's attempt to purchase Taiwan's largest cable provider for a hefty 2.4 billion dollars (1.76 billion euros) unleashed mass protests in Taiwan. Regulatory officials blocked the purchase last year.
"During Taiwan's one-party dictatorship, journalists subjected themselves to self-censorship. Now the media bosses are hoping for money from their Communist Party censors," said Chen of the situation.
The experts in Taiwan agree that independent forms of mass media have a big role to play going forward. But communications expert Kuang Chung-Shiang says the general working atmosphere has been "poisoned."
"Independent journalism can only grow if civil society actively gets involved," he said. "Only then can the government be controlled efficiently and independently. And that's also the only way to preserve social diversity."