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Government 'Buying News'
Taiwanese Democracy Short-sheeted

Across the political field in Taiwan, government agencies are paying news organizations to embed favorable stories in the guise of independent reporting. Is this what a democratic society looks like?

Photos: Kuo-Tai Liu

Freedom House's annual report on freedom of the press around the world released on May 2 painted a mixed picture of Taiwan's media environment. The good? Taiwan remained one of only two countries in Asia (along with Japan) viewed as having a "free" press. The bad? The country continued its slide that began in the 2009 rankings.

In Freedom House's 2011 report, called "Freedom of the Press 2011: A Global Survey of Media Independence," Taiwan was ranked 48th in the world and 7th in the Asia-Pacific region in press freedom, confirming a continued decline from the 2008 rankings, when Taiwan placed 32nd and 4th, respectively.

In 2011 Taiwan earned a total score of 25 (on a 0-100 scale with 100 being the worst), reflecting an ongoing increase from 20 in 2008, to 23 in 2009 and 24 in 2010.

Tellingly, of the three main components comprising the total score – legal, political and economic environments – Taiwan has lost the most ground in the economic category, gaining one point each of the past three years.

The "economic environment" covers such factors as the structure of media ownership, the selective withholding of advertising or subsidies by the state or other actors. Freedom House cited similar factors in summarizing why local journalists felt press freedom has been backsliding in Taiwan the past year.

"A growing trend of marketing disguised as news reports, a proposed legal amendment that would limit descriptions of crime and violence in the media, and licensing obstacles all contributed to these concerns," the report said.

Already a problem raised in Freedom House's 2010 press freedom report, the practice of "embedded marketing" – buying advertising that masquerades as news, especially by the government – has taken a heavy toll, not only on Taiwan's Freedom House ranking, but on government and media credibility and morale within the profession.

The problem came into focus late last year, and nobody was immune. 

On Nov. 5, 2010, Taiwan's fiercely contested municipal election campaigns were entering their final stretch, but it was also the day before the curtain was to rise on the Taipei International Flora Exposition.

Following his normal routine, Mr. Chang started flipping through that day's Chinese-language China Times over breakfast. Its front page featured a colorful spread on the Flora Expo grounds, including a photo with a hundred models inviting readers to check out "related stories on pages A8 and A10."

The news headlines on page A8 read, "100 Beauties Show Off Flora Expo Dresses Outside Traditional Home" and "Traffic Controls in Place for Flora Expo, Stay Up to Date to Avoid Disappointment." A headline on page A10 read, "Flora Expo Pavilion of New Fashion, Far Eastern's Eco Ark Sets Sail."

Mr. Chang may not have known, however, that two of the four reporters whose names appeared in the bylines for the stories on the two pages were actually employed by the paper's advertising department. What they wrote was in fact advertising copy, paid for by the Flora Expo organizer – the Taipei City government – and presented as news.

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