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Un pays, un censeur: comment la Chine porte atteinte à la liberté des médias à Hong Kong et à Taiwan – Serveur d’impression

Le 28 décembre 2019 - 78 minutes de lecture

Comprendre comment la Chine essaie d'influencer les médias est une première étape pour préserver la liberté de la presse. Hong Kong et Taiwan sont en première ligne de cette bataille. Dans un Hong Kong profondément polarisé, les journalistes sont sous pression alors que les médias indépendants luttent pour contrer la forte influence pro-Pékin. Et Taiwan doit savoir comment maintenir son ouverture et sa liberté de la presse tout en repoussant les vastes ressources et les prouesses technologiques de Pékin. Un rapport spécial du Comité pour la protection des journalistes.

Publiée le 16 décembre 2019

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Un pays, un censeur: introduction

La Chine est devenue une puissance économique mondiale de premier plan et étend rapidement sa portée militaire au-delà de ses frontières. Il essaie simultanément d’influencer le public mondial à travers les médias pour accepter et soutenir le rôle croissant de la Chine dans le monde. L'effort est loin d'être simple compte tenu des nombreux canaux que la Chine utilise pour faire sentir son influence, certains ouverts et parfaitement légaux, d'autres cachés et suspects. Comme le montrent les efforts russes pour influencer les élections américaines, les sociétés ouvertes peuvent être particulièrement vulnérables à la manipulation des informations. Comprendre l'effort est une première étape pour trouver des moyens de préserver la liberté de la presse. Ce rapport illustre comment la Chine tente d'influencer les médias proches de chez elle.

À bien des égards, l'effort de la Chine est le résultat naturel de son influence croissante dans les affaires mondiales. Après la Seconde Guerre mondiale, les États-Unis ont émergé comme une superpuissance mondiale, en lutte pour la suprématie avec l'Union soviétique, et ont essayé de refaire le monde à son image en tant que démocratie capitaliste qui défendait la liberté de la presse. Bien sûr, tous ces efforts n'ont pas été couronnés de succès ou de principes compte tenu du soutien de la CIA au renversement des gouvernements démocratiquement élus de gauche et du soutien américain aux dictatures oppressives qui ont pris des mesures sévères contre les journalistes, y compris à Taiwan. Mais les États-Unis ont créé des agences de presse crédibles telles que Voice of America et Radio Free Asia, visant à promouvoir les informations factuelles comme argument de vente pour la démocratie libérale. Le Bureau de la démocratie, des droits de l'homme et du travail du Département d'État a institutionnalisé la promotion des droits de l'homme, y compris la liberté de la presse.

Les journalistes regardent une image en direct du président chinois Xi Jinping donnant un briefing à la fin de la dernière journée du Forum Ceinture et Route, au centre des médias de Pékin le 27 avril 2019. (AFP / Greg Baker)

La Chine, quant à elle, est un champion de la censure et du contrôle de l'information. Le gouvernement chinois a des valeurs fondamentales qui sont contraires à la démocratie et à la liberté de la presse malgré les dispositions constitutionnelles qui disent le contraire. L'article 35 de sa constitution stipule: «Les citoyens de la République populaire de Chine jouissent de la liberté d'expression, de la presse, de réunion, d'association, de procession et de manifestation.» Mais, de toute évidence, le peuple chinois ne jouit pas de ces droits. Fin 2019, la Chine comptait 48 journalistes en prison, plus que tout autre pays, selon les recherches du CPJ. La Chine est confrontée à un environnement médiatique de plus en plus restrictif depuis que Xi Jinping est devenu président en 2013.

Quoi que dise la constitution, Xi et la Chine n'ont pas caché ce que l'on attend des médias. Xi a décrit ses attentes concernant les normes des médias lors d'une visite dans les établissements de presse en février 2016, comme l'a rapporté Xinhua, l'agence de presse officielle:

Tous les médias d'information dirigés par le Parti doivent travailler pour défendre la volonté et les propositions du Parti et protéger l'autorité et l'unité du Parti, a déclaré M. Xi.

Ils devraient accroître leur conscience pour aligner leur idéologie, leur pensée politique et leurs actes sur ceux du Comité central du PCC et aider à façonner les théories et les politiques du Parti en une action consciente du grand public tout en enrichissant spirituellement le peuple, a-t-il dit.

L'éducation journalistique marxiste doit être promue parmi les journalistes, a ajouté M. Xi, pour en faire «des diffuseurs des politiques et des propositions du Parti, des enregistreurs de l'époque, des promoteurs du progrès social et des observateurs de l'égalité et de la justice».

Les journalistes qui sortent de la ligne de démarcation en Chine encourent de graves conséquences. La répression est particulièrement intense dans la province chinoise de l'extrême ouest du Xinjiang, où le CPJ a recensé 23 cas de journalistes emprisonnés pour leur travail, près de la moitié du total des prisonniers chinois.

Les correspondants étrangers sont confrontés à de sévères restrictions lorsqu'ils tentent de se présenter au Tibet, au Xinjiang ou ailleurs. Et lorsque des journalistes tels que Chun Hang Wong de le le journal Wall Street ou Megha Rajagopalan de Nouvelles BuzzFeed rapport sur des sujets sensibles, ils risquent d'être expulsés. Depuis l'arrivée au pouvoir de Xi, le journalisme d'investigation est presque anéanti et les journalistes parlent d'une «ère de censure totale».

Bien sûr, la Chine n'a pas le pouvoir d'imposer quoi que ce soit comme une «censure totale» au-delà de ses frontières. En même temps, il a tout intérêt à influencer le contenu éditorial à l'étranger; par exemple, pour émousser les initiatives internationales visant à empêcher les ventes d'équipements par le géant chinois des télécommunications Huawei; adoucir potentiellement l'opinion publique contre son vaste programme d'infrastructures «Belt-and-Road» ou la propagation d'installations militaires chinoises visant à sécuriser les routes maritimes; ou simplement pour améliorer l'image de la Chine par fierté. La réaction souvent forte de la Chine aux critiques de la presse étrangère illustre un degré élevé de sensibilité. Le leadership de la Chine se soucie de l’image de la nation.

Les photographes de presse de Hong Kong, le 13 juin 2019, portent des casques et des masques de protection lors d'une conférence de presse de la police pour protester contre la manière dont la police a traité les journalistes lors de la manifestation de la veille contre un projet de loi d'extradition. (Reuters / Thomas Peter)

Quel est le manuel de la Chine pour contrôler les informations à l'étranger? Et quel est l'impact sur la liberté mondiale de la presse?

Ce rapport examine les efforts de la Chine pour influencer les médias à Hong Kong et à Taiwan, qui sont en première ligne de la bataille pour la liberté de la presse. Taïwan et Hong Kong ont été des bastions des libertés civiles en Asie de l'Est. Alors que l'une est une région administrative spéciale de la Chine et l'autre une île séparatiste sur laquelle la Chine revendique sa souveraineté, les deux ont des médias chinois et anglais dynamiques qui opèrent en dehors du contrôle direct de la Chine. Alors que la Chine a tenté progressivement d'augmenter la pression sur les deux marchés pour influencer le contenu éditorial et parfois pour manipuler l'opinion publique, les libertés à Hong Kong et à Taiwan ont été mises à rude épreuve. Ces deux endroits peuvent également être des indications précieuses sur la façon dont la Chine exporte la censure ailleurs dans le monde – et peut-être sur la façon de résister.

À Hong Kong, les intérêts chinois dominent les médias commerciaux. La police a attaqué à plusieurs reprises des journalistes couvrant des manifestations anti-gouvernementales, jusqu'à présent sans conséquence. Les journalistes locaux craignent que Pékin ne riposte pour leurs reportages critiques en les empêchant d'entrer sur le continent pour travailler, tandis que les correspondants internationaux craignent que leur autorisation de rester à Hong Kong ne leur soit retirée. La sécurité numérique et l'avenir de la liberté d'Internet semblent précaires.

"Les droits mêmes des journalistes sont supprimés", a déclaré Jimmy Lai, président de Next Digital, propriétaire de Apple Daily, a déclaré tout en répondant aux craintes d'une influence croissante de la Chine. "Nous étions des oiseaux dans la forêt et maintenant nous sommes emmenés dans une cage."

Pendant ce temps, Taïwan a du mal à trouver des moyens de faire face à l'utilisation par la Chine des pressions commerciales pour influencer les médias et pour comprendre et contrer un déluge de désinformation visant apparemment à manipuler l'opinion publique à l'approche des élections générales du 11 janvier 2020 à Taïwan. saper les libertés de la presse dont les Taïwanais ont bénéficié au cours des dernières décennies.

«Le pouvoir exécutif a fait part de nos préoccupations en tentant de criminaliser la désinformation», a déclaré Ian Chen, ancien secrétaire général de l'Association des journalistes taïwanais.

La gamme de méthodes de Pékin comprend la prise de possession ouverte ou subreptice de propriétés médiatiques; exercer une influence par le biais de propriétaires de médias ayant des intérêts commerciaux forts et indépendants en Chine; manipuler les médias sociaux; propagande pure et simple; représailles économiques; et intimider les journalistes. Pendant ce temps, la Chine bloque de manière sélective les informations provenant de l'extérieur de ses frontières, ce qui lui donne un fort avantage dans la guerre pour contrôler les informations et les idées.

La société civile de Hong Kong résiste fermement aux efforts croissants de la Chine pour imposer le contrôle. Taiwan peut offrir des leçons sur la façon dont les sociétés démocratiques peuvent faire face.

Des journalistes comme Tom Grundy, fondateur et rédacteur en chef du site d'information Hong Kong Free Press, voir les activités de la Chine à Hong Kong comme une première étape. "Notre préoccupation est que nous sommes en première ligne sur la façon dont la Chine exporte sa censure, jouant le rôle de terrain d'essai", a-t-il déclaré.

L'avenir de la liberté de la presse à Hong Kong dans le doute

Un journaliste est blessé alors que la police anti-émeute et des manifestants s'affrontent près du bureau de liaison de la Chine à Hong Kong le 28 juillet 2019 (AFP / Vivek Prakash)

Il est difficile de rédiger une analyse de la liberté de la presse à Hong Kong alors que les manifestants descendent dans la rue dans des affrontements de plus en plus violents avec la police, exigeant des élections démocratiques, la démission du chef de la direction et une enquête indépendante sur le comportement de la police. Les journalistes sont pris dans la mêlée et la police les a ciblés avec des coups, des lumières aveuglantes, des gaz lacrymogènes, du gaz poivré et des balles en caoutchouc.

Les attaques répétées de la police contre des journalistes qui tentent de couvrir la tourmente, sans conséquence apparente pour la police, témoignent de la préoccupation plus générale selon laquelle, au fil des décennies, la montée de l'influence de la Chine à Hong Kong a progressivement étouffé la presse locale autrefois à roue libre.

La presse hongkongaise reflète l’environnement politique polarisé du territoire, les principaux médias pro-Pékin étant mis au défi par des médias indépendants misérables et quelques-uns essayant de marcher sur la corde raide entre les deux. En plus de couvrir la violence, les journalistes locaux craignent que des reportages critiques sur Hong Kong ou la Chine ne conduisent la Chine à interdire l'entrée sur le continent, étouffant la capacité des journalistes à gagner leur vie. Des correspondants internationaux craignent d'être expulsés uniquement pour avoir rapporté la nouvelle. L'intervention croissante de la Chine dans l'ancienne colonie britannique fait craindre pour la sécurité numérique et l'avenir de la liberté d'Internet.

Lorsque Hong Kong est revenu à la domination chinoise en 1997, la Chine a promis que les systèmes juridique et social resteraient inchangés pendant 50 ans. «Les droits et libertés, y compris ceux de la personne, de la parole, de la presse, de réunion, d'association, de voyage, de circulation, de correspondance, de grève, de choix d'occupation, de recherche universitaire et de croyance religieuse seront assurée par la loi dans la région administrative spéciale de Hong Kong », selon la déclaration conjointe sino-britannique, qui régissait la prise de contrôle du gouvernement chinois.

Après 22 ans de restauration de la souveraineté chinoise sur Hong Kong, ces libertés sont soumises à de fortes pressions.

Propriété et direction éditoriale

Même avant le début des manifestations cette année, l'environnement médiatique de Hong Kong était devenu de plus en plus contraint, du moins dans la presse écrite et la radiodiffusion traditionnelle. Les fondateurs et propriétaires d'organisations médiatiques devraient avoir le droit de façonner la couverture éditoriale. Un changement de propriétaire peut naturellement conduire à un changement d'approche des informations et des opinions. Ce qui est inquiétant, c'est lorsque les propriétaires sont soumis à des pressions politiques extérieures et cachées, ou lorsqu'une concentration de propriété fait disparaître la possibilité d'opinions indépendantes. C'est le risque à Hong Kong, car le retour à la domination chinoise a été suivi d'une appropriation accrue par des intérêts commerciaux ayant des liens commerciaux et politiques étroits avec la Chine.

Selon un récent décompte que la Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) a communiqué au CPJ, les autorités ou sociétés chinoises du continent dirigées par des membres du Parti communiste contrôlent neuf des 26 principaux médias, y compris le diffuseur de télévision dominant, TVB, et le principal journal anglais, le South China Morning Post. En outre, les hommes d'affaires chinois qui ne résident pas sur le continent La Chine, mais à la place, a des nominations politiques chinoises, comme des députés du Congrès national du peuple, contrôlent des propriétés médiatiques supplémentaires, ce qui porte à plus de la moitié le nombre de propriétés médiatiques ayant des liens politiques étroits avec le continent.

Les changements ont commencé avant le transfert de 1997. Dans l'ancienne colonie britannique, des journaux anti-communistes comme le Ming Pao et les médias pro-communistes comme Ta Kung Pao et Wen Wei Po librement concouru pour les lecteurs. Deux mois avant la remise, Le journal de Wall Street (WSJ) a pris note du changement d'attitude éditoriale, notamment au Ming Pao, qu'il a qualifié de «retrait» d'une couverture agressive.

Un piéton passe devant un kiosque fermé portant le logo du South China Morning Post (SCMP) à Hong Kong le 12 décembre 2015, suite à l'acquisition par le géant chinois de l'Internet Alibaba du journal de langue anglaise. (AFP / Anthony Wallace)

le South China Morning Post (SCMP), contrôlée après 1993 par le magnat malaisien Robert Kuok, qui a acheté sa participation à Rupert Murdoch, a vu au fil des ans le départ d'une série de journalistes au milieu de préoccupations ou de plaintes ouvertes selon lesquelles la direction les obligeait à atténuer la couverture critique de la Chine. Cela comprenait le rédacteur en chef chinois Willy Wo-Lap Lam en 2000, qui a déclaré que le propriétaire du journal n'autoriserait pas sa marque de reportages sur les coulisses de l'intrigue politique de Pékin. Le rédacteur en chef de l'époque, Robert Keatley, a nié Publier avait retiré de la couverture agressive de Lam. Le journal a licencié le correspondant de Pékin, Jasper Becker, en 2002, l'accusant d'insubordination, tandis que Becker a déclaré que c'était à cause de lui qui avait repoussé alors que le journal adoucissait la couverture de la Chine.

En mai 2015, le journal a licencié quatre chroniqueurs expérimentés qui critiquaient souvent la Chine et Hong Kong. Des mois plus tard, en décembre, Kwok a vendu le journal à Alibaba, le géant chinois de l'internet dont le co-fondateur et ancien le président exécutif, Jack Ma, est membre du Parti communiste. Ma a dit plus tard au SCMP: «Grâce à son accès aux ressources, aux données et à toutes les relations d’Alibaba dans notre écosystème, Publier peut rendre compte de l'Asie et de la Chine avec plus de précision que d'autres médias qui n'y ont pas accès. »

Chow Chung Yan, rédacteur en chef du journal, a déclaré qu'avec le PublierProfondément ancrée dans la communauté, elle était mieux placée que ses concurrents pour expliquer la Chine au monde. Sans perspectives de croissance sur le marché de Hong Kong, où il domine le lectorat anglais, le journal a jeté son dévolu sur les lecteurs étrangers intéressés par la Chine. Il maintient quatre bureaux de Chine continentale avec un personnel de 50 personnes, a déclaré Chow. "Nous pouvons être une voix indépendante", a-t-il déclaré au CPJ SCMPL’impressionnant nouveau siège social, qui abrite un personnel multinational en pleine croissance, y compris des journalistes ayant de l’expérience dans des publications comme Bloomberg et le Los Angeles Times. Ses chroniqueurs pro-Chine et ses reportages qui expliquent sans critique la position de la Chine exaspèrent les critiques de Pékin, mais le journal publie également des nouvelles et des critiques de la Chine et de Hong Kong qui ne verraient pas le jour sur le continent, telles que: «Aveuglés: pourquoi Pékin continue-t-il de se tromper de Hong Kong? »Chow dit que la Chine bloque son site Web, notant que SCMPLe public cible de l’entreprise est en dehors de la Chine.

La chroniqueuse économique de longue date Shirley Yam a démissionné en 2017 après SCMP a rétracté une chronique publiée dans laquelle elle décrivait les liens entre un investisseur singapourien et un proche conseiller du président chinois Xi Jinping. Le journal a déclaré que la colonne contenait «plusieurs insinuations invérifiables», mais n'a pas précisé exactement où la colonne s'est mal passée ou n'a émis aucune correction. Yam a déclaré au CPJ qu'elle avait toute liberté d'écrire pendant ses 11 années au Publier. "Ce n'était plus le cas après la rétractation de ma colonne, avec laquelle je ne suis pas d'accord", a-t-elle déclaré, ce qui a conduit à sa décision de démissionner. L'incident soulève, mais ne répond pas, des questions quant à savoir s'il existe des limites SCMP couverture, y compris la couverture critique des hauts dirigeants chinois, ce qui a provoqué des représailles apparentes contre les correspondants étrangers à Pékin. le Publier couvre des sujets sensibles, tels que l'indépendance de Taiwan et la détention de masse des Ouïghours de souche au Xinjiang, bien qu'il consacre une place considérable aux vues du gouvernement chinois.

Une première page du journal hongkongais Ming Pao avec une pétition conjointe contre le projet de loi d'extradition, est vue à Hong Kong le 4 juin 2019. (Reuters / Tyrone Siu)

Personne ne douterait de l'indépendance de la langue chinoise Apple Daily et la société Next Digital qui en est propriétaire et est dirigée par l'entrepreneur franc-parler Jimmy Lai, un résident de Hong Kong qui a été sorti clandestinement de Chine à l'âge de 12 ans. Lai a commencé à fabriquer des vêtements dans les années 1970 et a ensuite fait fortune dans la chaîne de vente au détail de vêtements. Giordano. Après le massacre de la place Tiananmen en 1989, il a fondé Next Media (qui est devenu Next Digital en 2015) et a lancé Prochain magazine. À la suite d'une chronique critique dans le magazine en 1994, où Lai a insulté le Premier ministre chinois de l'époque, Li Peng, et lui a dit de «tomber mort», la Chine a commencé à forcer la fermeture de succursales de Giordano sur le continent, après quoi il a vendu sa part du entreprise. "J'ai été expulsé de Chine", a-t-il déclaré au CPJ. «J'ai vendu des actions Giordano. Sinon, ils fermeraient nos magasins. »Il a lancé Apple Daily en 1995.

Lai a introduit le journalisme de style tabloïd à Hong Kong et plus tard à Taiwan, et a ouvertement soutenu les manifestants pour la démocratie à Hong Kong. Il a été arrêté pour avoir manifesté en 2014. Pendant des années, Lai s'est plaint d'une compression politique de la publicité dans l'entreprise visant à nuire à ses finances. «Dans les années 90, ces magnats de l'immobilier ont cessé de faire de la publicité», a-t-il déclaré au CPJ, ajoutant que la pression s'est resserrée récemment. «Depuis 2014, les banques, elles se sont arrêtées, y compris certains grands noms. Aucune propriété, aucune compagnie aérienne, aucune banque. Ils ont des liens avec la Chine. »HSBC et Standard Chartered, deux des plus grandes banques de Hong Kong, ont déclaré avoir pris la décision commerciale de suspendre la publicité cette année-là, selon Le journal de Wall Street. Lai a déclaré que les entreprises affirmaient toujours que l'annulation des annonces était une décision commerciale, mais le schéma est cohérent. Il est difficile de savoir si les entreprises subissent une pression politique directe pour ne pas faire de publicité ou si elles ont décidé que leurs intérêts commerciaux étaient de tenter de gagner la faveur de Pékin de leur propre initiative.

En mars, l'ancien chef de la direction de Hong Kong Leung Chun-ying, connu sous le nom de C.Y. Leung – un haut responsable politique de Hong Kong qui, en tant que vice-président du Comité national de la Conférence consultative politique du peuple chinois est considéré comme fortement favorable à la Chine, a lancé une campagne sur les médias sociaux visant à faire honte aux annonceurs Apple Daily. Pendant plusieurs semaines, Leung a publié des photos de publicités et a encouragé les consommateurs à boycotter les produits des annonceurs. Leung n'a pas répondu à une demande de commentaire envoyée via Facebook Messenger.

En août, les médias contrôlés par l'État chinois ont lancé de nouvelles attaques contre Lai. L’agence de presse Xinhua a publié un commentaire intitulé «L'héritage méprisable de Jimmy Lai de fomenter le chaos à Hong Kong». Le commentaire accusait Lai de répandre la désinformation et d'inviter des forces extérieures à se mêler de Hong Kong. Lai avait rencontré le vice-président américain Mike Pence en juillet à Washington. La pression sur Apple Daily la publicité est conforme aux efforts croissants de la Chine pour exercer une pression commerciale contre les entreprises qui franchissent une ligne rouge politique mal définie, illustrée par la démission du président de Cathay Pacific Airlines au sujet de la participation du personnel aux manifestations contre la loi d'extradition. Alors que les ventes de l'imprimé Apple Daily ont diminué, les lecteurs enregistrés en ligne ont approché les trois millions de personnes en mai, a déclaré Lai. Un nouveau paywall partiel offre une source potentielle de revenus pour contrer la pression publicitaire.

La pression exercée sur les médias peut provenir des deux côtés pour refléter la polarisation politique de Hong Kong. TVB, la plus grande chaîne de télévision de Hong Kong, a perdu plusieurs annonceurs cette année, dont la boisson sportive japonaise Pocari Sweat et Pizza Hut, après que les manifestants se sont rassemblés et ont accusé la station de couverture médiatique biaisée, penché en faveur de la Chine contre les demandes des manifestants, selon les nouvelles rapports. Les manifestants ont également chahuté et harcelé des journalistes de TVB dans la rue en faisant leur travail.

Dans un e-mail, TVB a déclaré que l'allégation d'une couverture biaisée était "totalement infondée" et que la station avait reçu des critiques des deux côtés. «Au cours des derniers mois, le monde en ligne a été rempli de mensonges malveillants, d'incitations, de doxxing de notre personnel de presse et même de menaces de mort par des manifestants radicaux accusant les reportages de TVB de partialité pro-police. Les accusations non fondées ont abouti à des attaques physiques de l'équipe de nouvelles de TVB, à la saisie de cartes mémoire contenant du matériel d'information, à des dommages à nos véhicules et à nos caméras. Des manifestants radicaux ont également harcelé nos annonceurs en les menaçant de suspendre leurs publicités télévisées sur TVB, nous causant ainsi un préjudice économique », a déclaré un porte-parole de TVB.

Les soupçons concernant TVB proviennent en partie de la propriété de la société. Le vice-président de TVB, Li Ruigang, est un ancien haut fonctionnaire communiste du gouvernement de Shanghai. La société d'investissement dans les médias qu'il contrôle, CMC Capital, est le plus grand actionnaire de TVB avec 26%, selon les informations. Dans des commentaires aux médias, Li a rejeté les suggestions selon lesquelles il influencerait la couverture. Une analyse de contenu des médias de Hong Kong par Clement Y.K. Ainsi, professeur à l’école de journalisme et de communication de l’université chinoise de Hong Kong, a placé la couverture de TVB loin dans le camp pro-Pékin, juste à côté des journaux ouvertement pro-communistes. Parmi les autres diffuseurs d'actualités ayant un public plus restreint, citons la Radio Television Hong Kong, financée par l'État, ou RTHK, Now TV / ViuTV, une société privée, et CCTV, géré par Pékin.

Au-delà des médias traditionnels, il y a une scène animée de startups numériques innovantes sur des budgets modestes qui ont recueilli un soutien public croissant avec la vague de manifestations anti-gouvernementales à Hong Kong. Parmi les lecteurs de langue anglaise, le but non lucratif Hong Kong Free Press ou HKFP, qui a été diffusé en direct à partir de manifestations étouffées par les gaz lacrymogènes et a attiré un large éventail d'opinions. Le lectorat a presque triplé au cours de la dernière année, selon le fondateur du site, Tom Grundy, qui a également fait état d'une collecte de fonds record en 2019 et d'un doublement du nombre de donateurs mensuels. "Nous avons les mêmes préoccupations commerciales que tout le monde dans les médias", a déclaré Grundy, ajoutant que HKFP fait face à un boycott publicitaire de la Chine.

FactWire, un autre site à but non lucratif financé par la foule et publié en anglais et en chinois, se concentre sur les histoires d'investigation.

La vague d'intérêt pour les nouvelles contribue également à soutenir les sites d'information indépendants en chinois. Dans certains cas, les opérations ont fourni un refuge à des journalistes expérimentés qui peuvent avoir quitté les médias traditionnels pour pratiquer le journalisme comme ils le souhaitent, tels que Nouvelles citoyennes Rédactrice en chef Daisy Li Yuet-wah, ancienne directrice générale de la ligne Apple Daily Dans Taiwan. À ses côtés, Kevin Lau, ancien rédacteur en chef de Ming Paoet Chris Yeung, président de la Hong Kong Journalists Association. Li, qui travaillait pour Apple Daily depuis 13 ans, raconte le choc d'une brutale attaque de couperet contre son amie et collègue journaliste Lau en 2014 qui l'a incitée à explorer de nouvelles voies du journalisme. Le site a été officiellement lancé le 1er janvier 2017 avec l'aide de trois bienfaiteurs anonymes et peine à trouver un modèle financier fiable. "Nous sommes peut-être de bons journalistes, mais nous sommes de mauvais vendeurs", a déclaré Li au CPJ. Yeung est également fondateur et contributeur de Voice of Hong Kong, une plateforme de journalisme d'opinion en ligne en anglais.

Nouvelles citoyennes a récemment uni ses forces à trois autres sites Web d'actualités –InmediaHK, Matter.news et Nouvelles du stand—Dans un programme de financement géré par la fondation LikeCoin dans lequel les abonnés paient 5 $ US par mois pour allouer des paiements à leurs auteurs préférés sur les sites individuels, selon Global Voices. Initium Media, qui produit des histoires longues et d'investigation, a mis en place un modèle d'abonnement.

Bien sûr, la scène numérique serait incomplète sans une plateforme plus sympathique à la Chine. HK01La pratique de l’expression de l’opposition à l’indépendance de Taiwan ou de Hong Kong à la fin des reportages a suscité la condamnation de la Hong Kong Journalists Association, qui s'est également plainte HK01 tirant la couverture politiquement sensible. HK01 riposté en accusant la HKJA de «dépasser ses limites», selon le Hong Kong Free Press.

En somme, Hong Kong a des structures juridiques en place qui ont permis la liberté d'expression et la liberté de la presse. Le retour de Hong Kong à la domination chinoise en 1997 a donné le coup d'envoi à un processus graduel par lequel la plupart des grands médias sont de plus en plus soumis à l'influence commerciale et politique du continent. La manipulation apparente des annonceurs pour les éloigner du contenu pro-démocratie a endommagé certains médias, en particulier Apple Daily, ce qui équivaut à une atteinte à la liberté de la presse. Pourtant, ces voix persistent dans le monde robuste et à petit budget des médias en ligne, même si elles atteignent un public plus restreint.

Des femmes se tiennent près d'une bannière à côté d'un bureau installé pour recueillir des signatures à l'appui de l'ancien rédacteur en chef du journal libéral Ming Pao, Kevin Lau, à Hong Kong, le 28 février 2014. La police enquête toujours sur l'attaque presque mortelle contre Lau. (AFP / Philippe Lopez)

Violence contre les journalistes

La violence contre les journalistes demeure un courant sous-jacent inquiétant pour inciter à la prudence et à l'autocensure.

L'enquête policière sur l'attaque quasi mortelle de février 2014 contre le journaliste Kevin Lau reste ouverte malgré le fait que deux assaillants, qui lui ont infligé six coups de poing dans le dos avec un couperet, soient en prison purgeant une peine de 19 ans pour l'incident. Pourquoi Lau a-t-il été attaqué? "Nous pensons que cette attaque était liée à son travail de rédacteur en chef, mais nous n'avons aucune preuve", a déclaré Daisy Li. Le mystère signifie que la menace est toujours potentiellement présente, sinon pour Lau, puis pour d'autres qui pourraient accidentellement marcher sur la même mine enfouie. La menace pourrait freiner l'appétit pour certains types de reportages agressifs.

Keith Richburg, directeur du programme de journalisme à l'Université de Hong Kong, a noté le manque de rapports d'enquête sur les activités de la triade, ou le crime organisé, dans l'ancienne colonie, bien qu'il s'agisse d'un sujet évident. Les triades trouvent leurs racines dans les sociétés secrètes de la dernière dynastie impériale chinoise, les Qing. Plus récemment, la Chine a fait preuve de cooptation des groupes à ses propres fins. Des hommes que les militants de la démocratie croyaient liés à des triades ont attaqué des manifestants démocrates en 2014; et au moins deux hommes arrêtés dans le cadre d'une attaque en juillet 2019 contre des manifestants rentrant chez eux dans la station de métro Yuen Long étaient affiliés à des triades, selon des informations.

En janvier 2014, avant d'être attaqué, Lau a été brusquement retiré de son rôle de rédacteur en chef de Ming Pao et remplacé par un Malaisien résidant à Singapour. Les employés actuels et anciens ont signé des pétitions exprimant leur inquiétude quant à la limitation de l'indépendance éditoriale et de la position pro-démocratique du journal. Deux mois plus tard, deux hommes, dont un avec un couperet, ont attaqué Lau alors qu'il sortait de sa voiture près d'un restaurant à Sai Wan Ho sur l'île de Hong Kong, l'envoyant aux soins intensifs de l'hôpital. La police a rassemblé des centaines de bandes de vidéosurveillance pour identifier et reconstruire l'itinéraire des agresseurs, ce qui a conduit à leur arrestation et à leur condamnation éventuelle un an plus tard. Les deux hommes, qui ont affirmé avoir reçu 100 000 dollars de Hong Kong (12 821 $ US) pour mener à bien l'attaque, n'ont jamais dit publiquement pourquoi elle avait été commandée ni par qui. Bien que Ming Pao Le personnel a analysé les rapports d'enquête menés sous la direction de Lau à la recherche de ceux qui avaient les moyens et le motif d'ordonner l'attaque, ni eux ni la police n'ont pu désigner clairement un seul suspect, selon deux anciens Ming Pao le personnel qui a refusé d'être nommé parce qu'il ne voulait pas risquer de porter préjudice à une affaire si elle devait de nouveau être jugée. Un porte-parole de la police de Hong Kong a refusé de commenter, citant une enquête ouverte.

L’attaque contre Lau – toujours un sujet de discussion et de préoccupation parmi les journalistes à Hong Kong cinq ans plus tard – se distingue par sa brutalité choquante et la proéminence de la victime. Mais ce n'est que le pire d'une série d'attaques non résolues contre des journalistes et les médias. En 1996, deux hommes non identifiés ont attaqué le journaliste chevronné Leung Tin-wai, dont le bras a été sectionné puis attaché à l'hôpital, deux jours avant le lancement de son journal à sensation Surprise hebdomadaire. Deux assaillants armés de couteaux ont attaqué le diffuseur radio Albert Cheng en plein jour en 1998 devant une station de radio à Kowloon, juste avant qu'il ne parte en ondes, l'envoyant à l'hôpital pour plus de quatre heures de chirurgie. Cheng a démissionné du programme «Teacup in the Storm» en 2004, invoquant des menaces de mort et le climat politique «étouffant» à Hong Kong.

L'année 2013 a vu une augmentation des incidents. Bien que l'on ne sache pas exactement ce qui a provoqué cette augmentation, les attaques accrues contre les journalistes ont coïncidé avec la répression interne croissante des médias chinois alors que Xi Jinping a pris la présidence. Deux hommes brandissant des matraques ont attaqué Chen Ping, éditeur de l'hebdomadaire Affaires iSun, dans les rues de Chai Wan. En juin de la même année, quelqu'un dans une voiture volée a percuté le portail du domicile de Jimmy Lai, laissant une hache et une machette sur les lieux. Quelques jours plus tard, un Sharp Daily un journaliste a été attaqué et blessé. Peu de temps après, trois hommes masqués brandissant des couteaux ont menacé les travailleurs de la distribution et brûlé 26 000 exemplaires du produit phare de Next Media Apple Daily. La Hong Kong Journalists Association a cité 18 cas d'agression ou de harcèlement en 2013, y compris des attaques contre des journalistes de Hong Kong travaillant en Chine continentale, et a fustigé le gouvernement pour inaction.

Une vague d'attaques contre les médias s'est poursuivie. Selon les données de la HKJA, plus de 30 journalistes ont été agressés et blessés lors des manifestations du mouvement parapluie de 2014, sans aucune arrestation. Au cours des immenses manifestations de cette année appelant au retrait du projet de loi sur l'extradition et à une enquête indépendante sur le comportement de la police, entre autres demandes, le CPJ a documenté de nombreuses attaques contre des journalistes. La plupart des attaques ont été perpétrées par la police, certaines par des gangs qui ont attaqué des manifestants et d'autres par les manifestants eux-mêmes, qui ont attaqué un journaliste du groupe fortement pro-communiste basé à Pékin. Global Times lors d'une manifestation à l'aéroport.

Dans un e-mail répondant à une enquête du CPJ sur des attaques de gaz poivré contre des journalistes, qui, selon des journalistes et des vidéos, n'étaient pas provoqués, un officier de service anonyme de la direction des relations publiques de la police a écrit: «À de nombreuses reprises, des personnes portant des vêtements normalement portés par des photographes ou des journalistes, ont attaqué des policiers ou même tenté d'empêcher l'arrestation de contrevenants. Des badges de presse contrefaits ont également été saisis dans certains cas. La force appropriée et nécessaire a été utilisée pour arrêter les tentatives de contrecarrer l'arrestation légale des délinquants et établir une distance de sécurité entre les émeutiers et la police. »L'officier a ajouté que les journalistes devaient éviter de se mettre en danger. The response did not explain why journalists who were not taking any action against police had been attacked. In an email to CPJ, the Hong Kong Journalists Association said that it had no information to independently confirm the police allegations, and that the police had yet to respond to a request to provide details or evidence. In October, the HKJA filed an application to bring judicial review proceedings against the commissioner of police for failures by the police to uphold duties to facilitate journalistic activity.

On October 9, CPJ sent a letter to Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam calling on the government to establish an independent agency to conduct investigations into police attacks on journalists. A response on Lam’s behalf by her private secretary, Ronald Cheng, said investigations into police work would be handled by the existing Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC). However, on November 8, an independent expert panel appointed by the Hong Kong government concluded in a response publié on Twitter, that the IPCC had a shortfall of “powers, capacity, and independent investigative capability necessary to match the scale of events and the standards required of an international police watchdog operating in a society that values freedoms and rights.” The chief executive’s office did not respond to CPJ’s subsequent inquiry as to whether it would drop its opposition to forming a new independent body.

The pro-democracy Next Media and Apple Daily have continued to suffer from a variety of targeted attacks, including the January 2015 firebombing of Lai’s home and the company headquarters on the same morning. Lai’s home was again attacked with a firebomb in September 2019. In September, the Hong Kong Journalists Association condemned the publishing on recently launched Chinese-language websites of personal details of Apple Daily employees, including photos, dates of birth, residential addresses and contact information, in apparent violation of Hong Kong law. Global Voices reported that China’s state-run television network was encouraging Chinese to publish the personal details of protesters and reporters, to a section of its website labeled “reporters from poisonous apple,” in an obvious reference to Apple Daily. It also reported that the doxing website had been moved to a Russian domain after concerns were raised about privacy, and the details then spread on Chinese social media. CPJ research overwhelmingly shows that when journalists or a publisher such as Lai are targeted for attack, they’ve been known for critical reporting on Hong Kong or China. Police do make the occasional arrest and conviction, as in the Kevin Lau attack, but rarely convict those who are ultimately responsible.

But the overall record of going after those responsible—whether they’re gangsters, pro-China affiliated organized crime members, or the police themselves—is weak, a complaint that appears repeatedly in the annual reports of the HKJA and is reflected in CPJ reporting over the years. That’s true for targeted attacks and for violence against journalists during street protests, despite the handful of arrests following attacks on protesters and journalists by club-wielding gangs in July in Yuen Long. Yeung, the HKJA chair, suggested in an August op-ed that the Hong Kong police had in effect become a branch of China’s public security machinery. Referring to recent police assaults on journalists in its 2019 annual report, the HKJA said: “The number and severity of those cases have raised a question of whether police officers have deliberately targeted reporters and, if so, why. Reporters remain skeptical despite repeated assurances by [then] Police Commissioner Stephen Lo Wai-chung that they were sincere in cooperating with the media. There are concerns that people’s right to know will be jeopardized if reporters are not given easy and safe access to the places where news are unfolding.” Police have repeatedly denied to CPJ by email that attacks on journalists are intentional.

On November 19, new police Commissioner Chris Tang took office warning that “fake news” was undermining the reputation of the force and denying that an independent investigation into police behavior is needed, according to news reports.

China’s Growing Intervention

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks to the media after casting her vote at a polling station during district council local elections in Hong Kong on November 24, 2019. (Reuters/Thomas Peter)

The “one country, two systems” formula was supposed to insure that Hong Kong carried on more or less as it did before the accession to China for 50 years. But following the rise to power of Xi Jinping, who has centralized control and reasserted the authority of the Communist Party everywhere while promoting the role of ideology, an emphasis on one country has increasingly impinged on the idea of two systems. Richburg, also a longtime journalist in Asia, suggested in le Washington Post that the “one-country, two-systems” concept is unworkable, inevitably resulting in today’s clashes. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for comment as to whether the “one-country, two-system” concept is still viable.

China’s diminishing inhibitions to intervening in Hong Kong affairs have unfortunate consequences for journalists. “The overall situation is not positive,” Yeung said. “People feel different degrees of anxiety. I won’t say there’s a lot of tension or pressure, but you feel uneasy and uncomfortable about the media environment. Not so much very direct threat or feeling of insecurity about personal safety—no, I don’t think we are at that stage—but a lot of these things make you feel uncomfortable.”

Daisy Li, discussing the fallout from the attack on Kevin Lau, said the atmosphere darkened shortly after Xi came to power. “Journalism was definitely deteriorating, even in 2014,” Li said. “It was not only self-censorship, but also intervention by mainland China, through giving ads or not giving ads. Most of the mainstream media were already very timid in criticizing China or avoiding sensitive issues, or literally they took a pro-government stance.” Li said the Citizen News website has come under repeated denial-of-service attacks.

In 2015, five men associated with a book shop in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay disappeared and turned up on the mainland, some abducted from Hong Kong or in one case from Thailand, according to news reports. The bookstore, Causeway Bay Books, published works of political gossip and intrigue banned in China. All five appeared on Chinese state television to say they travelled voluntarily to China. The next year, the owner and manager of the store, Lam Wing-kee, was released and allowed to return to Hong Kong, he said, to retrieve a hard drive with customer data and then go back to China. Instead he stayed and denounced the Chinese for staging forced confessions. “It can happen to you, too, if I don’t speak up,” he warned Hong Kongers in a press conference.

The abducted were not journalists, but as the HKJA noted in its 2016 annual report, “This has had an undoubted adverse impact on freedom of expression and press freedom in Hong Kong.” The booksellers were picked up for publishing material that was legal in Hong Kong, but not in mainland China. The same standard could easily cross the Hong Kong-Shenzhen frontier and be applied to journalists, without warning.

In 2018, the Media and Journalism Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong—which supplies much of the budding talent to Hong Kong’s media—was broken into in the middle of the night, according to Richburg, the director. The masked intruder entered the media lab using a stolen electronic key before moving on to the computer server room, the only sensitive part of the intrusion not caught on video camera as he moved systematically through the building. Police couldn’t say who broke into the building or why, or what might have been left behind, according to Richburg, who says he now assumes that the program is under surveillance.

En janvier, Le journal de Wall Street, following a change in government in Malaysia, was able to review minutes of meetings between Malaysian officials of the previous government and Chinese officials, who offered to help use their influence to get other countries to drop a corruption probe involving Malaysia. According to the minutes, China offered to bug the homes and office of Journal reporters in Hong Kong, the Journal signalé. “At a meeting the next day [June 29, 2016], Sun Lijun, then head of China’s domestic-security force, confirmed that China’s government was surveilling the Journal in Hong Kong at Malaysia’s request, including ‘full scale residence/office/device tapping, computer/phone/web data retrieval, and full operational surveillance,’” according to a Malaysian summary of that meeting. "Monsieur. Sun says that they will establish all links that WSJ HK has with Malaysia-related individuals and will hand over the wealth of data to Malaysia through ‘back-channels’ once everything is ready,’” the summary reads. “‘It is then up to Malaysia to do the necessary.’”

le Journal reported that it employed security measures and could not confirm that surveillance was actually carried out.

Visiting Hong Kong this year, CPJ found foreign journalists had coined a new verb: to be Malleted, meaning to be expelled from Hong Kong for exercising the right of free speech. The saying implied fear that they could suffer the same fate as Victor Mallet should they offend China. Mallet was the Hong Kong-based Asia news editor for the Financial Times (FT), and an experienced journalist who had worked throughout Asia. As first vice president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong, it fell to him to host a talk by Andy Chan, founder of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, while the president of the club was travelling. Mallet had nothing to do with arranging the talk, although he had stood up against pressure from the China Liaison office to cancel the event, according to club members. His resident visa was denied a few months later when it came up for renewal and he was subsequently barred from entering Hong Kong on a visitor’s visa, normally issued routinely on arrival to U.K. citizens. (Mallet is now the FT’s Paris bureau chief.) An FT statement said: “The FT has not received an explanation for the visa rejection from the Hong Kong authorities and continues to seek clarity regarding this matter.”

While no official reason was given for the denial of Mallet’s visa, it’s widely believed to be China’s punishment for hosting the Chan talk. The incident has made foreign journalists based in Hong Kong say they are acutely aware that they and the club persist at China’s pleasure, injecting a note of caution into decisions taken by the club and, some journalists say, into thinking about coverage of Hong Kong and China. “It has had a chilling effect on foreign journalists, leading to self-censorship,” said Grundy of Hong Kong Free Press.

The Hong Kong government speaks in a confusing and contradictory way about what happened. Chief Executive Lam says that Hong Kong will uphold freedom of speech, but that advocacy of independence will not be tolerated. “All I want to say is that this is not a question of freedom of speech. It is a question of whether we are respecting ‘one country, two systems,’ and a constitutional question of whether we care if Hong Kong can continue to have our rights and freedoms protected under ‘one country, two systems,’ so that we can develop and our people can live in a stable and prosperous city,” Lam said at a press conference, as reported by the South China Morning Post.

When asked at a press conference in October 2018 how journalists could navigate this, Lam provided no guidance. “I can’t tell you exactly what journalists should say, or act, or interview, but I can assure you … freedom of expression, freedom of reporting, are core values in Hong Kong,” she said.

There is, perhaps, one positive outcome of Mallet’s expulsion for Hong Kong journalists. “No one is in jail; people aren’t being killed. It’s hard to convince the international community that press freedom is under siege here,” said Yam, the former SCMP columnist who is also vice-chair of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. “Victor Mallet made that easier.”

Hong Kong’s values came under threat again in February 2019, when the government proposed amendments to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance, informally known as the extradition bill. The government said the bill aimed to provide a legal path to extradite a murder suspect to Taiwan, but it also provided a means to send suspects to other jurisdictions, including to China for trial over alleged infractions of Chinese laws. The legislation appeared to be headed toward enactment since the government enjoyed majority support in the Legislative Council, which had barred some pro-democracy elected legislators from serving. But fear that Hong Kong residents could be subject to China’s highly politicized judicial system was the spark that initially brought millions of Hong Kongers to the streets to protest the bill.

On May 13, before the largest of the anti-extradition-law demonstrations, CPJ called for withdrawal or amendment of the bill on the grounds that it provided inadequate safeguards to prevent misuse against journalists. The bill explicitly excluded rendition based on political or spurious offences, and any rendition would have to be endorsed by Hong Kong’s chief executive and approved by Hong Kong’s highly respected judiciary. However, the Hong Kong courts would not have been given a chance to review evidence in a case. Furthermore, the chief executive is effectively chosen by China, undermining any claims to independence. “If the request comes from the mainland, it’s almost unthinkable that the chief executive would reject it in the end,” Johannes Chan, law professor at the University of Hong Kong, told CPJ.

The Hong Kong business community was more comfortable with the basic approach of the bill. Felix Chung Kwok-pan, leader of the pro-business, pro-China, Liberal Party in the Legislative Council, told CPJ he did not think journalists would be at risk.

Fears ran high that China could go after a critical journalist on unrelated or fabricated charges and haul them in front of a mainland Chinese court—essentially using legal avenues to capture journalists and not have to abduct them, as happened in the case of the booksellers. “The Chinese will use any means to file charges against a reporter they don’t like, will say he hit someone, or something,” said Dennis Kwok, a member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council who represents the legal community. Philip Dykes, chairman of the Council of the Hong Kong Bar Association, argued that journalists would be most vulnerable to the law, followed by academics and politicians. China is consistently one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists, according to CPJ research. Just the threat created by the bill could be enough to induce a high degree of self-censorship among Hong Kong journalists. “Once we have the fugitive offenders law we will have no protection as a journalist,” said Jimmy Lai.

A woman distributes newspapers with the headlines 'Millions against Communist China shock the world' in a shopping district popular with mainland Chinese tourists in Hong Kong on July 7, 2019. (AP/Andy Wong)

Chief Executive Lam initially suspended the bill, but after months of additional street protests agreed to formally withdraw it in early September. Protesters have continued to march, calling for her resignation and for an independent inquiry into police behavior. However, aside from the concession over the extradition bill, China has adopted an increasingly hard line, blaming the continued violence on the lack of tough security laws, according to reports. A high-level Communist Party meeting in early November concluded with a call for increased control over political appointments in Hong Kong, national security legislation, and the introduction of “patriotic” education, according to news reports. Lam also received a strong endorsement from China’s leadership, according to reports, dimming prospects for further accommodation to protesters’ demands.

Meanwhile, China began an information war against the protests on social media channels that are blocked in China: Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. In response, Twitter suspended 936 accounts that it m'a dit originated in China and were “deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong.” Facebook removed seven pages, three groups and five accounts for “coordinated inauthentic behavior” related to Hong Kong. China objected to the move and said that it had a right to put out its opinion. A few days later, on August 22, Google said it had disabled 210 YouTube channels originating in China to combat “coordinated influence operations” related to Hong Kong. An analysis of the accounts by researchers at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute concluded that, “the information operation targeted at the protests appears to have been a relatively small and hastily assembled operation rather than a sophisticated information campaign planned well in advance.” It’s not clear whether or how far Chinese efforts go beyond the dataset that was studied.

Hong Kong may have experienced an early instance of internet censorship in November when a channel named “dad finds boy” on the Telegram messaging app was shut down just a few weeks after an October 25 court injunction that banned the publication of Hong Kong police officers’ personal details, according to news reports. The channel was widely used to share private information about officers and their families. On October 31, the court also banned the spread of online messages inciting violence, according to reports. Telegram spokesman Remi Vaughn told CPJ the channel was temporarily suspended for breaching Telegram's terms of service by publishing calls to violence.

The court, however, reaffirmed the importance of press freedom in Hong Kong when, over police objections, it exempted journalists from the ban on doxing when they reveal information about police in the normal course of reporting the news. The Hong Kong Journalists Association had sought the exemption at a November 8 hearing. “Lawful reporting and freedom of the press are important to Hong Kong,” said Justice Russell Coleman, as quoted in the South China Morning Post.

Even without legal rendition to China, anti-subversion laws, or broad internet censorship, the supportive environment needed for a truly free press has been severely compromised. The head of one prominent news bureau that covers the Asia region from Hong Kong said, on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, that his organization was actively looking to relocate elsewhere in Asia. Other foreign journalists discussed the possibility with CPJ. Hong Kong’s relatively central location, freedom of the press, rule of law, and convenient transportation links have made it an attractive base for regional work.

Yeung, chair of the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association, noted the gradual shift in the atmosphere affecting local Hong Kong journalists. “The pressure that journalists are facing here, it’s not so much like what’s happened in some Asian countries, where they face violence or physical threats to safety, but more like you won’t be allowed to visit the mainland. Some reporters who have done some sensitive stories, they were not given permission to cover events in China. They were banned, or blacklisted. They want to be quiet, wait for the ban to be lifted. They worry if they publicize it they will never get accreditation for events or be allowed to be there for a long period of time. Those people in those cases, they don’t come to us [HKJA for help]. They might not even want us to be involved.”

China has not been shy in its surveillance efforts. Journalists and ordinary citizens have had phones searched, and sometimes content deleted, when crossing the Chinese border, according to news reports. It’s unclear whether China has also installed surveillance apps, as news reports indicate it has done elsewhere in the country. The Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council and the State Council did not respond to a request for comment left on message boards on their respective websites. The Cyberspace Administration of China did not respond to an email request for comment.

At a police press conference in August, journalists said they found themselves being photographed by a woman who would not initially identify herself, stoking fears they were under surveillance. “Slowly watching the death of HK’s free press. I'm sure many suspect she is passing photos onto the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] to have certain people ‘mysteriously vanish,’” said one Twitter post. The Hong Kong Federation of Journalists, which has close ties to China and identified the photographer as a journalist from China, condemned what it called prejudice and discrimination against reporters from the mainland.

Conclusion

From the period before the handover to Chinese rule in 1997 until today, press freedom in Hong Kong has come under a gradual and now accelerating squeeze, despite China’s pledge to maintain Hong Kong’s open society. Jamil Anderlini, Asia Editor at the Financial Times and a longtime China correspondent, predicted in October that the squeeze would inevitably worsen, in a reflection of China’s increasing totalitarianism and the obvious failure so far to achieve its goals in Hong Kong. He predicted that “news outlets would be muzzled,” along with dismissal of civil servants and judges, and the introduction of patriotic materials in the education system. Likely, the internet will be censored. That, he suggested, would be a best-case, if increasingly unlikely, scenario as turmoil on the streets continues.

The initial cause of Hong Kong’s ever more restrictive environment is the gradual change in control of large media properties, which have come under mainland Chinese ownership or influence. This has left independent journalism underfunded, even though the online scene is in some ways robust.

Targeted violence against individuals has underscored the potential dangers for journalists that challenge China’s wishes or report on organized crime. Attacks by police against journalists covering protests have raised serious questions about official support for the values of freedom of the press.

But perhaps most concerning is the bleeding ethos from China into Hong Kong of total censorship that has shut down independent media in China. The methods are less effective than what’s used in China—long jail sentences for offending scribes. But pressuring businesses to withhold advertising, arbitrarily cancelling the visa of a correspondent, increasing double-speak about forbidden topics and free speech, and doxing and spying on journalists all take a toll. As China ratchets up the pressure on Hong Kong media, it’s not clear where or if it will stop.

Taiwan’s values at stake in China disinformation fight

Taiwan hosts one of the freest media scenes in Asia, a product of its evolution from military to democratic rule in just over 30 years. But today, as China becomes more aggressive in finding ways to spread its message, Taiwan faces a dilemma: How does it maintain its openness and press freedom while facing an adversary that has vast resources and technological prowess, and lacks the values that have made Taiwan a democracy?

Based on CPJ reporting, Taiwan does not have a clear answer. As this report documents, China’s influence over local legacy and social media has grown. That influence has become potentially more worrisome as general elections on January 11, 2020 approach, reflecting fears that China is intervening surreptitiously to sway the outcome. Facing potential threats, Taiwan has employed a patchwork of legal and regulatory approaches to punish media for inaccurate reporting or distortions, while experimenting with other methods of fighting lies with truth.

What China does and how Taiwan reacts could have ramifications far beyond Taiwan, as democracies from South and Southeast Asia to Africa and Latin America struggle to maintain fairness and transparency, while depending economically on China, or face foreign manipulation similar to Russia’s intervention in the 2016 U.S. election.

A Taipei newspaper delivery woman counts piles of evening newspapers bearing headlines of Hong Kong's midnight handover to Chinese rule on June 30, 1997. (Reuters)

Taiwan’s Media and the White Terror

Fifty years of Japanese rule over Taiwan ended abruptly in 1945 with Japan’s defeat in the Second World War. Press freedom flourished for a brief period until the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party, or KMT) under Chinese President Chiang Kai-shek fled the communist-controlled mainland and took refuge on the island. Afterwards, Taiwan endured 38 years of continuous martial law—one of the longest such periods on record—from 1949 until 1987. During this period known as “White Terror,” at least 73 journalists were imprisoned, 26 executed, and three placed under constant surveillance while six committed suicide, died in detention or died for other reasons, according to research by Chen Pai-lin, chairperson of the Department of Journalism at the National Chengchi University.

In short, Taiwan’s free press of today was birthed from an extremely unfree media environment. “Just 30 or 35 years ago Taiwan was where the PRC is [today],” said Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s minister without portfolio or “digital minister,” referencing the mainland’s formal name, People’s Republic of China. “The state-run media at the time was the only media and there was, frankly speaking, lots of propaganda around.”

“Nobody who remembers the martial law wants to go there. It's really the bad old days,” said Tang, who serves in the government of President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the KMT’s main rival.

Press Freedom in Taiwan

Indeed, it couldn’t be more different today. Taiwan boasts a lively and unrestricted media landscape. With multiple 24-hour news broadcasters, more than 10 printed daily newspapers, and countless competitive media outlets, Taiwan’s nearly 24 million residents enjoy robust freedom of speech and the press.

Most of the mainstream newspapers and news broadcasters have their own political allegiance or ideology and almost every political faction has its own media outlet and online platform. But a shadow hangs over this otherwise lively and diverse scene: fear that the Chinese government has taken openness and freedom as an opportunity to use hidden means to influence public opinion in Taiwan. As Tang put it, “Disinformation is a threat especially for open societies.”

A journalist reads an advert placed in the Apple Daily newspaper in Taipei on June 28, 2019, placed by a Hong Kong campaign group calling for solidarity with Hong Kong protesters demanding the withdrawal of a bill that would allow extraditions to the Chinese mainland. (AFP/Sam Yeh)

How to maintain Taiwan’s openness while preventing unwelcome manipulation by a hostile political force—let alone a giant next door whose economy is key to Taiwan’s prosperity—is a riddle for which there isn’t yet a satisfying answer.

Unlike in Hong Kong, Taiwan prohibits direct ownership of media properties by mainland Chinese entities or individuals without the government’s approval. That prohibition has nonetheless failed to halt China’s efforts to influence media or prevent individuals with strong business interests in China, who are potentially vulnerable to Chinese pressure, from owning Taiwanese media. Advertising, too, plays a role: Taiwan bans advertising by Chinese state, but not commercial, entities. A cursory look at Taiwan’s newspapers indicates that papers that are critical of China do not carry advertisements from China. It pays to be pro-Beijing.

China’s influence, or at least the rise of China-friendly news coverage, picked up in 2008 when chairman of the Want Want Group, Tsai Eng-meng, and his family acquired one of Taiwan’s biggest media companies, the China Times Group. Tsai is a native Taiwanese billionaire who made his fortune manufacturing and selling crackers and drinks in China. He has openly promoted closer relations with China in preparation for what he sees as eventual reunification of Taiwan with the mainland. The group has an extensive list of media properties including The China Times and two other newspapers, three magazines, three TV broadcasters, including CTITV and China Television, and eight news websites or apps, according to the company. Some business practices have landed the Want Want Group in trouble and raised questions about its independence from Chinese influence.

Concerns about mainland influence over Taiwan media, including social media, deepened during the December 2018 mayoral election in the major southern city of Kaohsiung which saw the rapid rise of Han Kuo-yu. Han, a once obscure KMT politician, achieved victory amid a strong social media campaign that supported him and denigrated his opponent, sometimes falsely. He has since become the KMT candidate for president in the January 2020 race where he’ll face the DPP’s Tsai. The DPP has leaned toward independence and incurs strong criticism from China, while the KMT favors friendlier relations with the mainland.

The KMT declined CPJ’s repeated requests to interview party officials. The Want Want China Times Media Group did not respond to CPJ’s email requesting comment.

Influence in Traditional Media

When Su Shulin, then-governor of Fujian province in China, visited Taiwan on an official tour in March 2012, The China Times, one of Taiwan’s largest dailies, dedicated at least one story daily to his activities in Taiwan. While the stories were presented as news with flattering photos of Su and Fujian province, it turned out that the Fujian government had paid The China Times for the coverage to promote tourism, according to a report by New Talk, an independent news website.

New Talk published a document entitled “2012 Fujian Governor Taiwan Tour Propaganda Plan” (2012福建省長訪台宣傳計畫), detailing Su’s travel schedule, the word count of each story The China Times should publish, and an added budget for Xiamen city. UNE New Talk reporter called the Xiamen city government and confirmed that a payment would be made to The Want Want Group’s Chinese branch.

The report prompted heavy criticism of the newspaper and an investigation by the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), Taiwan’s cabinet level agency that oversees relations with China. The China Times was fined NT€1.8 million (US€57,368) for the illegal placement of advertising for Chinese authorities, according to the newspaper. Tsai said The China Times was unfairly vilified. “Do these advertisements really hurt national security?” Tsai said in an interview with his newspaper. “We should be allowed to profit from this.”

Research published in April 2019 by the Nikkei Asian Review found that Want Want China had received $586.7 million in subsidies from the Chinese government since 2004. The publication compiled the figures from published financial records. Want Want, responding to reports of the subsidies, said the grants were local government incentives aimed at attracting investment and had no connection to the conglomerate’s media business, according to the Review. "Taking subsidies or rewards from the Chinese government does not violate Taiwan's laws," Chiu Chui-cheng, deputy minister of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, told the Review. "What we are concerned about is if the money comes with (a) political agenda against Taiwan," he said, adding that at the time there was no evidence that it did.

Nonetheless, on May 2, 2019, Taiwan’s National Security Bureau, Taiwan’s intelligence agency, delivered a report to the legislature outlining China’s alleged infiltration of Taiwan’s media and spreading of false news. Deputy Director-General Chen Wen-fan said some editorial content was being reviewed in Beijing prior to publication, although he refused to name the outlets involved. “It’s really clear to those of us who monitor this which media the NSB was talking about,” said Ketty Chen, vice president of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, an independent, primarily government-funded organization that promotes democracy. “Collaboration with the Chinese regime is now public knowledge.” CPJ was unable to obtain contact details for the NSB.

A week later, China hosted 70 Taiwanese media executives and commentators at a forum in Beijing hosted by the municipal Communist Party-run Beijing Daily and Taiwan’s Want Want China Times Media Group. During the forum, Wang Yang, the powerful chair of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a legislative advisory body, exhorted Taiwan’s journalists to promote the “one country, two systems” approach that’s been applied in Hong Kong. The event drew a swift rebuke from Taiwan authorities who accused China of interfering with Taiwan’s internal affairs and harming press freedom. Among the attendees were staff of the privately owned newspaper United Daily News, who dismissed the event as routine. “It is not news that Chinese officials have always been promoting connections,” Chen Yan Qiao, senior reporter at United Daily News, told CPJ in an interview. “But that doesn’t mean we will accept what they are selling.”

In this photo taken on June 23, 2019, protesters hold placards with messages that read 'reject red media' and 'safeguard the nation's democracy' during a rally against pro-China media in front of the Presidential Office building in Taipei. (AFP/Hsu Tsun-hsu)

In June, newspaper readers, NGOs, and media outlets accused Want Want China Times Media properties of downplaying Hong Kong’s massive pro-democracy protests while other newspapers put it on the front page. Also that month, a Facebook user discovered that The China Times had removed its past reporting on the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre just in time for the 30th anniversary, in an apparent effort to understate China’s widely reported atrocities. The discovery was confirmed by internet blogger Joy Hsu and news outlets including Central News Agency, Storm Media, and Apple Daily. A recent check of the website by CPJ found that some of the posts had been restored. The China Times did not respond to an email request for comment.

On June 23, 2019, tens of thousands of people marched in Taipei to voice their frustrations with the “Red Media” that appear to be bought by China. The protesters asked for stricter legislation and revocation of broadcasting licenses to punish and prevent Chinese interference.

Nearly one month after the rally, The Financial Times seemed to confirm the concerns of intelligence officials when it reported that The China Times and the Want Want-owned CTITV news broadcaster were taking instructions on how to slant coverage and where to place stories related to China from the Taiwan Affairs Office, the Chinese government agency that handles Taiwan affairs. In response, the media conglomerate released a statement calling the story unsubstantiated and threatened to sue the British newspaper and its reporter, as well as any media outlets or individuals that quoted the story. Immediately after the story came out, Taiwan’s National Communications Commission (NCC), an independent body modeled after the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, said it was opening an investigation into the allegation of Chinese interference. An NCC officer told CPJ in November that the case is still under investigation.

In August, Reuters reported that “mainland authorities” had paid at least five media groups in Taiwan, which it didn’t name, to run favorable articles about China. The article, citing unnamed sources and signed contracts reviewed by Reuters, said China’s Taiwan Affairs Office had paid 30,000 yuan (US€4,300) for two feature stories about China’s efforts to attract business people to China. Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said the payments would, if confirmed, violate national security laws and regulations governing cross-strait relations. Contacted by phone, the MAC asked CPJ to request comment by email, to which it did not respond.

Of course, many media outlets have made efforts to remain independent amid growing pressure and political polarization in Taiwan. “I’ve been asked by Chinese officials to do ‘joint projects’ with them,” said Zhou Jing-wen, editor-in-chief of Chinese-language Liberty Times, one of the largest daily newspapers on the island. “I politely smiled and that was the end of it.” Zhou told CPJ that her newspaper tried in 2008 to send a reporter to Beijing to cover the Boao Forum, an annual gathering of regional leaders, but the visa was never granted. “Since then, we stopped sending our journalists to China,” Zhou said. Liberty Times also shuns advertisements from China, including commercial ads that are allowed under law, spokesperson Jackson Su told CPJ. On the political spectrum of Taiwanese media, Liberty Times is more supportive of the ruling, independence-leaning DPP.

United Daily News, which leans closer to the KMT perspective, also said it maintains independence from Chinese intervention. “Our newspaper has a very mature standardized operation,” said Chen Yan Qiao, the senior reporter. “Even if someone within the newspaper received pressure from personal connections in China, it is very unlikely to affect our critical reporting.”

Online battleground

As in Hong Kong and many other places, some of the most independent-minded journalism operations are online startups. After leaving the Want Want China Group, Hsia Chen became chief editorial writer for The Storm Media, one of the largest internet outlets in Taiwan, according to Amazon’s Alexa traffic report. "When we first started in 2014, we didn't think much about how to manage relations with China," Hsia said. The Storm Media website enjoyed high traffic from China at the time. But when Occupy Central, the democratic movement in Hong Kong, took place in September 2014, Chinese authorities blocked the website. Hsia advised her boss, Storm Media Group’s chairman, to give up on building an audience in China. "Once you ask for Chinese authorities' permission, they will inevitably demand certain things from you in return," she said. China continues to block the website, Hsia told CPJ.

Chinese and English-language digital startup The Reporter launched in 2015. Funded by a continuing grant from a local computer tycoon and reader contributions, it emphasizes investigative reporting. Editor-in-Chief and Deputy CEO Sherry Lee told CPJ the site, which has published investigative stories on the crackdown on Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province and a series of reports on Taiwan’s “White Terror,” is also blocked in China.

Essentially, all Taiwan-based major news sites are at least partly blocked in China, according to a United Daily News report in 2015 that monitored the accessibility of 16 Taiwanese news websites for 85 days. The data showed that no website was fully accessible throughout the full period; the only difference was “fully blocked” or “partly blocked.” Liberty Times’ Editor-in-Chief Zhou confirmed this was true of her paper. Chen, of United Daily News, said his paper’s website was blocked when it reported in 2010 on pro-democracy writer and activist Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize, recognition Beijing strenuously opposed, and it has been blocked on and off since. The Cyberspace Administration of China did not respond to an email request for comment.

The blocked websites illustrate the uneven playing field between Taiwan and China and China and everywhere else, for that matter. China electronically blocks traditional and social media from the outside via the so-called Great Firewall and heavily censors domestically produced content, giving it near total control over what people in China can read or watch.

However, China faces far fewer restrictions reaching people in Taiwan, which has no active censorship operation. Taiwanese are free to report the news and express their views, including pro-China opinions, while on the mainland, Chinese who report sensitive news or opinions contrary to official Communist Party policy may land in jail. Wu Jieh-min, associate research fellow at the Taiwanese thinktank Academia Sinica, who has studied Chinese efforts to influence Taiwan, told CPJ in an email that China’s social media interference in Taiwan has become a routine, daily activity.

Michael Cole, a Taipei-based policy analyst, said social media manipulation has become more sophisticated. “At first, they were using Chinese citizens, but the audience quickly realized it because they were using simplified Chinese and phrases,” Cole said. Now, he said, the content appears to be produced in Taiwan, based on the language and presentation. Idiomatic Chinese language usage in Taiwan and mainland Chinese has evolved in different ways over the years of separation. China also uses simplified forms of written Chinese characters; many mainlanders are unable to read or write the traditional forms common in Taiwan.

The one-way flow of information—and disinformation—came to the fore during the Kaohsiung mayoral election. The victor, Han, ran as a populist, China-leaning candidate who promised to bring riches to the southern city and to restore pension benefits to retired government workers, whose families often came from the mainland. Yet news reports noted that his rise was accompanied by the widespread circulation of false news stories on social media that appeared to benefit him. Taiwan News, for example, reported several instances of false, viral, social media posts, including one claiming that his opponent in a debate was being fed answers through an earpiece, and another falsely claiming that his opponent begged attendees at a rally not to leave. “While there is no specific story which has swung public opinion away from the DPP and towards Han, the steady stream of false stories, lies, and misleading propaganda has had a cumulative effect,” the paper reported. In another instance, the Liberty Times reported that politicians cited false stories that Han led in polling conducted by a university that had never conducted any polling. A recent analysis in Foreign Policy pointed to “a campaign of social media manipulation orchestrated by a mysterious, seemingly professional cybergroup from China.”

Authorities in Taiwan fear that China is repeating this kind of intervention as the campaign for the January 11, 2020, general election heats up. The Mainland Affairs Council held a press conference September 26 expressing concern about China using the internet to spread false information while taking other steps to meddle in the election. According to recent news reports, Taiwan’s national security community acquired a confidential report, allegedly typed in the simplified Chinese characters used on the mainland, detailing China’s attempt to, translated literally, “wage war against Taiwan’s cognitive space.” This included operating a troll farm to manufacture disinformation on social media with the stated aim of fostering a pro-Beijing government in Taiwan by 2020.

In April 2019, CommonWealth, a bilingual English-Chinese magazine, published an interview with a pseudonymous internet marketing specialist who said he began his own political operation business after helping a KMT councilor win an election. The online political operative told CommonWealth that he already had clients involved in the 2020 presidential race, and that while he does not deal with the Chinese Communist Party, he knows others who do despite the likelihood their activity is illegal under Taiwanese law.

Taiwan’s Counter-measures

Taipei’s legislative approach to blocking Chinese interference has been piecemeal and gradual, seemingly buffeted by events and lacking a consistent strategy. Meanwhile, recent bills introduced by the ruling DPP are problematic for freedom of expression and the press, raising questions about who decides what is and isn’t true, and subjecting enforcement to potential political manipulation. At the same time, other methods that don’t involve law enforcement have yet to prove themselves. Wu, of Academia Sinica, told CPJ that Taiwan needs to launch a comprehensive review of measures aimed at preventing Chinese interference. The DPP did not respond to an email request for comment on the proposal.

Among Taipei’s laws aimed at thwarting China’s attempts to exert control over the island are those that prohibit foreigners, or residents of Hong Kong, Macau, or China from taking actions to influence elections; prohibit Chinese state investment in Taiwan while limiting investment by Chinese individuals to non-sensitive areas; and prohibit a wide range of activities that essentially amount to espionage. The 1991 Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area Act prohibits publication of political propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party, effectively ruling out state advertising.

Supporters of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen hold up their mobile phones as they celebrate Tsai's election victory in Taipei, Taiwan, on January 16, 2016. (Reuters/Pichi Chuang)

The laws do little to address the evolution of Taiwan’s relationship to China and the broader impact on media, including the reality that influential Taiwanese with strong business ties to China have an incentive to promote policies favorable to China, and strong disincentives to offend Beijing. Over the years, investment and trade have made Taiwan dependent on the Chinese economy, and the rise of Chinese tourism to Taiwan has made the island’s economy vulnerable to a boycott. China delivered a taste of that on July 31, 2019, when it banned individual, but not group, travel to Taiwan. Chinese authorities gave no reason for the ban; local newspapers interpreted it as an effort to isolate the island and harm re-election prospects for President Tsai.

China has repeatedly showed that it stands ready to use its economic power for political ends, as was illustrated by its decision to cancel television broadcasts of National Basketball Association pre-season games in response to a single offending tweet from a team manager. The chief executive of Cathay Pacific Airlines, Hong Kong’s flagship carrier, resigned after the company came under pressure from Beijing over employees’ participation in pro-democracy demonstrations. Marriott International was forced to temporarily shutter six websites last year and apologize to China after it listed Taiwan, Macau, Hong Kong, and Tibet as separate countries on a questionnaire sent to customers. Also last year, China pressured U.S. airlines to stop referring to Taiwan as separate from China, while Taiwan considered punishing airlines that complied. Airlines responded by dropping country references to all Chinese cities. Hollywood has preemptively censored scripts to avoid trouble in China and faced Chinese censorship when it failed to do so.

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council outlined the depth of the problem a day after the Financial Times article that alleged direct editorial intervention in Taiwan media by the mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office (behavior that the council suggested may violate a 2013 Taiwanese national security law that was amended on July 3, 2019). In a statement, the council said: “The Chinese Communist Party has long taken advantage (of) Taiwan’s democratic and open society and pursued a ‘united front’ strategy to interfere in elections, to reach out to our media, interfere with media independence, use distortion to spread false news, aiming to change popular understanding in order to benefit candidates who favor Beijing’s position.”

Pending legislation would bar individuals who gained great economic benefit in China from operating media properties in Taiwan. That’s defined in the draft bill as businesses having 30% or more assets in China, or making 30% or more of their total revenue in China; individuals who have received NT€1 million (US€33,000) or more from Chinese authorities within the past five years; or business groups that have received NT€5 million or more from Chinese authorities within the past five years. The office of DPP legislator Wang Ting-yu, who sponsored the bill, told CPJ that the bill is in the preliminary stage of debate.

The unspoken target of the legislation is almost certainly Tsai Eng-meng of the Want Want China Times Media Group. Vice-chairman Jason Hu told the BBC in an interview that the Group “resolutely oppose the passage of such an ideological bill.” Hu rejected the allegation that the group’s disproportionate reporting on Han helped him win the Kaohsiung mayoral election and said he believes that a better relationship with China would be good for Taiwan.

Opposition Kuomintang legislators boycotted scheduled votes on the bill September 22 and October 15, accusing the ruling DPP of suppressing the media. The KMT caucus whip, Tseng Ming-chung, told the Central News Agency that the bill violates freedom of the press and expression, and could put Taiwanese working in China in danger, according to news reports.

Any moves aimed at restricting media ownership by citizens in Taiwan are likely to raise such a furor. “It’s a tricky proposition because you touch issues of freedom of expression,” said Ketty Chen of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy. “The Taiwan government is aware that this is delicate.”

Laws that target prohibited media behavior rather than ownership are more benign than, for example, so-called fake news legislation recently passed in Singapore that includes hefty criminal penalties in a tightly restricted media environment. Historical incidents in Taiwan include a fine to Formosa TV for not giving equal time to candidates in 2004 as required by the Civil Servants Election and Recall Act, and a 2006 fine to Eastern Broadcasting Company for “disrupting public order or adversely affecting good social customs” by reporting on a kidnapping case when the hostages had not yet been released. In these cases, the NCC investigated alleged violations and levied fines according to its findings.

More recently, the NCC has turned its attention to what the law identifies as harmful reporting of false information without sufficiently verifying facts. Indeed, NCC Chairperson Nicole Chan resigned from her post in April after coming under sharp criticism for failing to do enough to stem the spread of false news, according to news reports. A CPJ search of all NCC fines levied since 2006 shows that the first fines issued by NCC over inaccurate news reporting came earlier this year in February with NT€200,000 (US€6,530) fines levied against two broadcasters in separate cases. CTITV was fined for misreporting a political candidate’s speech and Eastern Broadcasting was fined for misreporting facts related to African swine flu. The NCC told CPJ that the reports "improperly affected the public's right to receive information, undermined the rights of the audience, and undermined the fairness and credibility of the media, thereby jeopardizing the public interest."

The Want Want Group's other media outlets objected to CTITV’s fine, with le China Times derisively calling the NCC the “news police.” Fines increased after the NCC came under criticism for lax enforcement. As of July, CTITV had been fined nine times in 2019 for various infractions, according to the Central News Agency. In March, the NCC fined the broadcaster NT€1 million (US€32,000) over seven infractions, including unbalanced political reporting by allegedly giving excessive coverage to Kaohsiung Mayor Han, who subsequently became the KMT presidential candidate, according to the ETtoday news website. In April, CTITV was fined another NT€1 million for running a false story that farmers had discarded 2 million tons of pomelo citrus fruits into a reservoir, distorting the market. CTITV said it would appeal.

Cole, the Taipei-based policy analyst, said the fines are small, given the size of the company. “For them, it’s pocket change. It has no deterrent value,” he said.

In May, Taiwan’s legislature approved legislation to increase fines in the Disaster Prevention and Protection Act for knowingly spreading false information about disasters, for which harm to the public can lead to imprisonment. Similar increases in fines were enacted for the spread of false information about food safety or contagious diseases.

The ruling DPP also in April proposed criminalizing false reports about trade and reputation, which would be punished by fines and brief imprisonment—a proposal that followed CTITV’s false pomelo story. Additional legislation proposed in October would require TV stations to make timely and proportionate corrections in response to orders from the NCC if a news report by the station is judged to be erroneous by an involved party. The office of DPP legislator Lin Chun-hsien, who sponsored the bill, told CPJ that the bill supplements existing legislation requiring corrections by strengthening NCC supervision.

These measures are concerning; the danger is that this government, or a successor government, could misuse these laws to suppress political criticism. In 2018, CPJ objected to legislative proposals that would criminalize online speech.

Authorities have already prosecuted several people for false or inciting speech on social media under existing statutes. These prosecutions include a woman in her 70s who was charged under the Social Order Maintenance Act after she sent a message in a private group chat on LINE, a messaging application, saying that President Tsai was willing to gift NT€450 million to Haiti but wouldn’t give Kaohsiung city NT€20 million to help prevent dengue fever. She faced up to three days in jail or a fine of NT€3,000 (US€100). She paid the fine. A man suggested on Facebook that the pilot of China Airlines’ presidential airplane should land in Beijing with Tsai aboard. The Ministry of Justice investigated and prosecuted him for violating Article 153 of the Criminal Act, which prohibits incitement of others to break the law.

“It’s only 30 years since the end of martial law,” said Ian Chen, former secretary general of the Association of Taiwanese Journalists. “It’s dangerous to criminalize the dissemination of lies.”

Indeed, the opposition KMT came out strongly in an October 31 statement against recent legislative proposals that would ban any participation by Taiwan citizens in Communist Party activities, on the grounds that they would not only obstruct relations with China and threaten Taiwan’s economy, but also interfere with freedom of expression. For example, the bill could preclude the Communist Party-run Beijing Daily from hosting Taiwan journalists. The measures, if enacted, could create potential hazards for journalists trying to decide if normal reporting activities put them in violation of the law.

Wu, of Academia Sinica, told CPJ the bill is nonetheless needed to counteract China’s comprehensive efforts to influence Taiwan. “As long as it’s regulated by the legislative process under the principles of due process and rule of law, it is democratic,” he said.

Brian Hioe, editor-in-chief of news website New Bloom, summed up the bind caused by fear of Chinese manipulation. “It's one of the interesting paradoxes that progressive civil society in Taiwan is pushing for legislation to combat fake news, while civil society activists fear that legislation against fake news in Southeast Asia, for example, will be used by governments to crack down on political dissent,” he said.

Regardless, current and proposed measures don’t seem well designed to cope with the most oft-cited threat: a possible deluge of coordinated social media surreptitiously posted by China or its surrogates.

Viral reports on social media can easily form the basis of news reports in traditional media, a concern Audrey Tang, the minister without portfolio, expressed in an interview. Tang, who oversees digital affairs, outlined a different method of combating online disinformation, essentially by flooding the zone early with what the government believes is accurate information. Disinformation, Tang said, has a specific legal definition in Taiwan: "intentional, harmful untruth, and most importantly, harmful is to the public, to the democratic system.”

The aim of Tang’s program is to combat disinformation without resorting to censorship or ordering the removal of online content. The idea is to try to identify disinformation campaigns in real time by detecting the initial A/B testing that helps purveyors of tweets or other messages to identify which are mostly likely to spread quickly. Tang said that teams have been set up in Taiwan’s ministries to detect disinformation campaigns at the early stages and, within 60 minutes, launch a counter campaign with truthful information. “Our observation is that if we do that, then most of the population reach this message like an inoculation before they reach the disinformation, and so that protects like a vaccination,” she said.

“The mainstream media, of course, then picks up this counter-narrative and then do a balanced report. What we have witnessed is that if we don't come up with this counter-narrative and ready videos or films, or at least picture cards, then after six hours, that's after a news cycle, it's hopeless. Truth be told, it is actually very exhausting.”

Journalists like Hioe are not optimistic about the effectiveness of this approach. “I generally suspect that fake news will continue to circulate through avenues the government is unable to fully regulate,” he says. “Responding quickly to fake news can minimize its spread, but it is hard to stamp out fake news altogether.”

Tang argues that, in the long run, the most useful tool is to teach media literacy, helping consumers of news to distinguish between false and accurate information on their own. She says that younger Taiwanese are fully skeptical and have the tools, but that older consumers are often more susceptible. Tang’s office told CPJ in November that it was continuing its efforts to combat digital disinformation.

Conclusion

Taiwan has experienced a remarkably swift journey from a highly controlled media environment to one of the freest press and broadcast scenes in Asia, just as it has enjoyed a swift transition from autocracy to democracy. This transition is fundamental to its case for distinguishing itself from China and striving to maintain separation from Chinese communist control.

Taiwan has well-grounded fears that China is taking measures to influence Taiwan’s media and obtain what it likely considers a favorable outcome in Taiwan’s January election: a government led by the KMT and its presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu, which favor warmer cross-strait relations than President Tsai Ing-wen and the ruling DPP. And while the effort bears careful watching, their success may be hard to gauge even after the results are in. According to Academia Sinica’s Wu, an important factor in the campaign that could offset China’s efforts to influence Taiwan is its aggressive actions toward Hong Kong, which have alienated Taiwan’s voters and disadvantaged the KMT.

China’s efforts deserve exposure, perhaps by Taiwan’s community of investigative journalists. Still, Taiwan has no reason to turn back on its recent history of openness and press freedom, which gives Taiwan’s citizens free access to different sources of information and the ability to decide what’s true concerning presidential candidates or any other topic.

If Taiwan can ward off Chinese influence without resorting to draconian measures aimed at curbing freedom of the press, it could offer an important lesson to others facing media manipulation from the outside. Taiwan may show that societies do not have to give in to fear and impose restrictions and controls. Instead independence from outside influence may be preserved by a vigorous collective commitment to openness and transparency.

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