Taipei, Taiwan – Creating a whole new media from scratch is a huge challenge for any team, but in Taipei the staff at TaiwanPlus are trying something even more difficult.
From two-minute video clips to 45-minute films on topics like culture, health, technology and politics and a half-hour daily news program, they want to play a bigger role in the diplomatically isolated Taiwan’s international media space, and change the way we talk about democracy abroad.
“For us, our main goal is to tell stories about Taiwan that are not being told in the international media, and to tell a fair story about Taiwan for better or for worse,” said Andrew Ryan, deputy director of the information at TaiwanPlus.
Foreign media coverage of Taiwan has long been presented in terms of its relationship with Beijing, which claims the island as its own, and due to its contested political status, it is never referred to as a “country” in the media except in his country.
Since the election of President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, however, foreign coverage has started to change thanks in part to stories that have global resonance – from the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage to the successful response of Taipei at COVID-19.
Political repression in China and Hong Kong has also helped spur interest in Taiwan as a thriving democracy where free speech is valued. More recently, it has become a refuge for some of the 20 foreign journalists expelled by Beijing since last year.
TaiwanPlus, the island’s first English-language video news platform, officially launched on August 30.
The large cardboard backdrop with the company’s cross logo and the numbers “8/30” or August 30, still features prominently in the office, which is in part of the central office building. central press office in Taipei, where the Associated Press, Agence France Presse and Japan’s Kyodo News also have offices.
Initially with a team of less than 20, TaiwanPlus now has more than 70 employees and appears to be expanding, expanding to other open spaces.
Next year, the operation will move to new offices that should feel more âstart-upâ than the current decor: institutional gray carpet, ceiling tiles and fluorescent lighting.
The staff includes journalists from Taiwan and abroad who have experience in major foreign media such as the Associated Press, the BBC, Bloomberg, and the Washington Post. Divya Gopalan, director of the TaiwanPlus information center, previously worked for Al Jazeera.
Soft power projection
Although it is still too early to measure the impact of TaiwanPlus, Chiaoning Su, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, Journalism and Public Relations at Oakland University in the United States, says the outlet has great potential to expand the reach of Taiwan’s soft power. .
“I think for each country they have to work on self-promotion and national branding, they have to work to project themselves to an international audience, and through that as a way to ask for international support “Su said. “I think this is especially important for a country like Taiwan, which is so small and (whose) international status is actually ambiguous.”
TaiwanPlus is currently operated as a project of the Central News Agency, the state-owned news service of Taiwan, and reports to the Ministry of Culture, which, in turn, will distribute around $ 200 million in funds over the course of over the next four years.
TaiwanPlus has been touted as an “independent” media outlet, but its dealings with the government have raised questions in Taiwan as to whether this will be possible.
In East Asia, this question is particularly prescient as the media in Hong Kong, a territory once considered the regional press freedom hub, comes under government scrutiny for its coverage of protests in the country. city ââin 2019 and for their work under China’s new national security legislation. .
Pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily was forced to shut down, while Hong Kong’s public broadcaster RTHK’s appointment earlier this year of a new director, a career civil servant with no media experience, sparked a wave of resignations, layoffs and program cancellations.
A more patriotic tone also crept into the editorial pages of the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s best-known English-language newspaper abroad.
“Tsai’s refusal to recognize that there is only one China is the cause of the tensions between the two shores,” the newspaper wrote in an op-ed Tuesday. “Until it abandons its rhetoric and independent policies, there is no chance of certainty and greater prosperity for the Taiwanese.”
Cedric Alvani, director of Reporters Without Borders’ Asia-Pacific East Asia office, said a good test of TaiwanPlus will be whether it produces segments critical of the government and the Democratic Progressive Party in the country. to be able to.
Others, like Jaw-Nian Huang, an assistant professor at National Chengchi University who wrote about press freedom in Taiwan, say that after the media’s current agreement with the CNA expired, it should be transformed into a stand-alone media.
âTaiwan Plus’s current organizational and financial structures cannot guarantee its independence because its funder, owner and executor are official,â Huang said. âHowever, that does not mean that there is no autonomy. If the authorities are ready to let TaiwanPlus develop without interference, it will be more autonomous, and vice versa.
For now, however, Ryan says TaiwanPlus intends to operate as an independent outlet with separate staffing, budget and editorial decisions from CNA, although they receive administrative support. of their parent organization as they are not yet considered a âlegal entityâ.
The platform currently has an independent board of commissioners to oversee its work, but Huang says TaiwanPlus should eventually be hosted by an organization like the Taiwan Public Television Service Foundation, whose funding is less tied to government control.
âIt needs more reforms to ensure its independence, making TaiwanPlus represent the nation, not the government or the party,â Huang said.
Countering the history of Beijing
The launch comes as Taiwan’s national media face their own struggles.
The island ranks 43rd in RSF’s annual press freedom survey, one place ahead of the United States but also one place behind South Korea.
While government interference is rare these days, media experts say widespread sensationalism and Beijing-related disinformation campaigns have eroded the quality of Taiwanese journalism. News organizations are also seen as highly partisan and bias in opposite directions towards Taiwan’s two main political parties.
Both trends have been apparent since the COVID-19 outbreak, as Chinese-language media play a major role in spreading vaccine skepticism and conspiracy theories of vaccine shortages in Taiwan seeking to put the blame on the government and to circumvent the problems of world production.
âIt’s an island with only 23 million people where you have seven to eight 24/7 news channels competing against each other, so there is fierce competition,â said Chiaoning Su, professor. Assistant to the Department of Communication, Journalism and Public Relations. at Oakland University in the United States.
TaiwanPlus, however, will compete in the world of government-affiliated media like Voice of America, France 24, CGTN in China, and Press TV in Iran – all of which look overseas to find their audiences with content in English.
However, due to TaiwanPlus’ limited budget, its operations are on a smaller scale than its counterparts, and 24-hour media coverage doesn’t appear to be in the works any time soon.
Publicly available traffic data compiled by US marketing firm SEMRush showed 324,400 site visits in September and 75,600 unique visitors with an average visit time of around 13 minutes. His two YouTube channels, which contain much of the same content, have racked up around 7,000 subscribers and 123,000 views.
Even with its more modest ambitions, however, pundits like Huang say TaiwanPlus could still make an impact as it becomes an established medium, especially by providing an overseas counter-narrative to Beijing-backed media.
It can also prove to be popular with the Taiwanese and ethnic Chinese diaspora as well, as many live in English-speaking countries such as the United States, Canada, and Australia.
âThere (there is a limited English audience) in Taiwan, so it won’t influence the national media much. Taiwan Plus is the English medium that targets international audiences, which includes English-speaking foreigners and Taiwanese and Chinese overseas, âhe said, so they hope to provideâ alternative information resources and Taiwanese perspectives to Chinese propaganda abroad, such as CGTN.