Why Reporters Without Borders chose Taipei over Hong Kong

April 18, 2017 09:49
Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders, voiced concern over the possibility that staff members would be put under surveillance in Hong Kong. Photo: YouTube

In a symbol of Hong Kong’s declining media freedom, the Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF) has chosen Taipei over Hong Kong for its first bureau in Asia.

Christophe Deloire, the group’s secretary-general, said that, originally, Hong Kong had been the first choice.

But it had selected Taipei “because of a lack of legal certainty for our entity and activities” and the possibility that staff members would be put under surveillance in Hong Kong. “It is not so easy now to run activities from there.”

The group has ranked Taiwan top in Asia for media freedom every year since 2013; it was 51st in the world last year, Hong Kong 69th and China 176th.

In its Freedom in the World report announced in February this year, US-based Freedom House gave Taiwan a score of 91 out of 100, ahead of France with 90, the United States with 89 and South Korea with 82. It measures many civil liberties, including media freedom.

Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) was founded in 1985 as an international non-profit, non-governmental organization to promote and defend the freedom of information and freedom of the press. It has consultant status at the United Nations.

“The Hong Kong media’s independence vis-à-vis Beijing is the main issue for freedom of information,” RSF said in its most recent analysis of Hong Kong.

“The media are still able to cover sensitive stories involving the local government and mainland China, but the need to fight to protect their editorial positions from Beijing’s influence is increasingly noticeable.

"The purchase of Hong Kong media by Chinese internet companies such as the internet giant Alibaba is extremely disturbing.

"The most outspoken journalists, such as those working for the Apple Daily newspaper, are exposed to violence.”

Since 2001, RSF has published an annual list of “Predators of Press Freedom”. In 2016, it named 34 leaders or groups on the list, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, together with Vladimir Putin of Russia and Kim Jong-un of North Korea. It also listed China as an "enemy of the internet".

In a report issued in April 2016, RSF “called on the Special Administrative Region’s authorities to reverse their insidious policies towards the media as a matter of urgency … Politically motivated dismissals, stories censored or buried deep inside the paper, journalists demoted or sidelined, media groups taken over by pro-Beijing industrialists, withdrawal of advertising and political pressure from local officials – nothing has been spared Hong Kong’s journalists, who have nonetheless kept the public informed about the erosion of their freedoms – freedoms that are essential in a democracy.

“This report aims to draw attention to the fact that, hidden out of sight behind what is generally known as 'self censorship', there are often men and woman taking the decision to censor,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.

“At this turning point in Hong Kong’s history, those rightly suspected of being behind the erosion of media freedom must be held accountable.

"Led by Beijing, the enemies of media freedom must be confronted, especially as they deny that they have a media control strategy.”

The choice of Taiwan is a historical irony. In 1985, when RSF was set up, Taiwan was in its 36th year of martial law, the longest of any country in history.

Under martial law, no political party or media was allowed other than those controlled by the ruling Kuomintang.

At that time, Hong Kong had the free-est media in the Chinese world and one of the most open in Asia.

On July 15, 1985, President Chiang Ching-kuo lifted martial law, allowing new entrants into the media market. Since then, they have sprouted like mushrooms after the spring rain.

According to government figures, in 2016, Taiwan had 170 radio stations, 62 cable television operators, 301 satellite channels and 2,628 newspaper and 13,350 magazine publishers.

It also publishes 40,000 books a year.

On Aug. 1, 1992, the government abolished the Taiwan Garrison Command, the feared secret police who implemented martial law. It was the equivalent of the State Security Ministry in the mainland.

Another irony is that, while the outside world admires media freedom in Taiwan, its reporting of Taiwan has decreased.

Short of money, European and North American media have closed their bureaus in Taipei, in favor of those in the mainland or Hong Kong.

They can obtain an interview with Taiwan’s prime minister or a member of his cabinet; this is virtually impossible with their equivalents in Beijing.

– Contact us at eng[email protected]


A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.