Thursday, November 21, 2013

Failing to connect the dots

Traditional news outlets in Taiwan are irresponsibly ignoring many important stories and thereby preventing foreign audiences from seeing the larger picture — and the blows coming

Seven years working in the media sector in Taiwan have convinced me that traditional news outlets are failing in their duty to report news that really matter. With their obstinate focus on the main political parties and government agencies, news organizations, especially English-language media — including my soon-to-be-former employer — have done foreign audiences a great disservice by excluding other, equally important actors in Taiwan, and thereby prevented them from seeing the bigger picture.

By ignoring or under-reporting civil society, traditional media (foreign wire agencies, top newspapers and main news channels) have disconnected government from the people and thereby created a news environment that can only superficially enlighten the public and the government officials abroad who depend on information to flesh out their Taiwan policies. Not only the editors of top international news outlets, but also those at local media companies often argue that civil society is too “granular” or “insider baseball” a subject to be of interest to foreign audiences.

While this problem probably exists elsewhere, especially among countries regarded as “on the periphery of things,” China’s heavy propaganda machine, which has relentlessly sought to marginalize Taiwan, has without doubt compounded the problem. As has the fact that Taiwan is now a democracy, where human rights violations are not as severe as elsewhere within the region.

Consequently, people and academics who seek to understand Taiwan’s political scene at the street level must turn to non-traditional, non-market-driven and Internet-based media outlets, arguably the last remaining bastions of investigative journalism in Taiwan. As those publications are exclusively in Chinese, non-speakers are for the most part unable to tap into this rich and oftentimes timelier source of information, as are those who, for one reason or another, limit themselves to English media.

Most foreign consumers of news therefore only have an incomplete view of the situation in Taiwan, a situation that is akin to a tourist who is driven around the glitzy neighborhoods of a metropolis but is kept away from the slums.

If newspapers like the Taipei Times, which a good number of people in Washington, D.C., rely on almost exclusively for their information, were more serious about reporting news that matter, much greater effort would be made to plug the many gaps that exist in their reporting. Only then would we avoid situations where Taiwan “experts” cannot understand why a delegation led by Chen Deming (陳德銘), the new chairman of China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS), plans to visit the Taoyuan Aerotropolis next week.

Had the Times and other publications like the Central News Agency been more responsible organizations, they would have reported a lot more on the build-up to the mega-project in Taoyuan, including the expedited hearings which did not meet the standard protocols set by the Executive Yuan for such projects (e.g., the number of public officials in attendance) and where self-help organizations were told that whatever the outcome of the hearings, if the government decided to demolish people’s homes for the project, they could do nothing about it.

The government wants all hearings to be completed by the end of the year, with bidding to start next year.

Responsible news outlets would also focus a lot more on the protests that are brewing over the issue, press releases by the Taiwan Rural Front and other groups, and the suicide earlier this month of a farmer who stood to be among the thousands of victims of the Aerotropolis project. They would also point out that former vice president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮), a native of Taoyuan and former county commissioner there, has been hired as a “consultant” for the project and is now seeking foreign investment.

Of the US$15 billion-plus, 4,700-hectare mega-project, more than 3,200 hectares will involve land expropriation, affecting as many as 12,000 households and several dozen schools, which will all be destroyed if the project is allowed to proceed.

Responsible news organizations would have connected the dots earlier by reporting on the growing instances of government-sanctioned land grabs, the role of land developers and investors, and the manner in which the government has sided with those against the victims. They would have placed more emphasis on those developments, and they certainly would not have buried the few articles they had on the subject in the little-read inside pages, as the Times often does.

And lastly, news outlets worth their salt would have emphasized the fact that under regulations passed last year, China can now participate in infrastructure projects and act as contractors. As CommonWealth magazine reported in late 2012, “Chinese investors are zeroing in on four sectors [of Taiwan’s economy following the new regulation] – landmark infrastructure projects, the high-tech industry, commercial real estate, and logistics and transportation.”

If they were serious about their mandate, traditional outlets like the Times would by now have made clear to foreign readers why ARATS Chairman Chen’s delegation is keenly interested in visiting Taoyuan next week. They would have connected the dots, or helped their readers do so: Thanks to new regulations and more to come, China intends to inject large sums of investment money into Taiwan’s major infrastructure projects, which is a major, non-military component of its plans to gradually take over the island. Not only are there national security angles to this story, but in Taoyuan and elsewhere, hundreds, thousands of Taiwanese are facing the specter of forced evictions and the dislocation that will result from their relocation.

The more the government in Taipei is pressured by Beijing or by corporate interests which stand to benefit from Chinese investment, the more victims there will be, which will in turn exacerbate social instability. So far, foreign readers who rely on traditional media, including individuals in a position to influence U.S. policy, do not seem to be getting this at all, which means that their understanding of the scope and relevance of activist civil society in the country, which has been most responsive to the problem, remains extremely limited.

The fact that people in Washington and elsewhere are asking why Taoyuan will be part of the ARATS delegation’s itinerary next week is a clear indication that traditional news organizations like the Times are failing in their mandate (I am not singling out journalists here; management is often the problem). Of course ARATS will want to visit Taoyuan! (Photo by the author)

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