In the summer of 2016, Swedish journalist Jojje Olsson was denied a new visa to China twice. Though he never got an official explanation for the Chinese government’s decision to “blacklist” him, he is certain that the decision was related to his reporting.

“When Chinese police … kidnapped and paraded two Swedish activists on television, this became international news,” Olsson said in an email interview. “As the Swedish journalist covering the cases of Gui Minhai and Peter Dahlin most closely, my reporting on those two cases was probably the main factor behind the decision to blacklist me.”

Due to his failure to obtain a China visa, Olsson moved to Taiwan in September 2016. It would be a revelation.

Still good, but…

According to the 2019 World Press Freedom Index published by the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, Taiwan ranks 42nd out of 180 countries and regions assessed in 2019 based on “the level of freedom available to journalists.” The island maintained the same ranking and “satisfactory situation” as it did in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index published last year.

The Index is “a snapshot of the media freedom situation based on an evaluation of pluralism, independence of the media, quality of legislative framework and safety of journalists in each country and region.”

This year, Taiwan lost the title of freest press environment in Asia which it had for six straight years, from 2013 to 2018.

According to the Index, Taiwan had an increase of 1.62 in its score compared to last year from 23.36 to 24.98 – a metric which suggests that there are more constraints related to press freedom in Taiwan in 2019. South Korea emerged as the region’s freest environment for reporting.

However, Swedish journalist Olsson – now firmly ensconced in Taiwan – is not complaining.

Eyrie overlooking China

Currently working as a stringer for the Swedish weekly news magazine Fokus and freelancing on a regular basis for other Swedish publications, the Taipei-based journalist was initially worried that he would lose his relevance as a reporter covering China after losing his access to the country.

He soon, however, found out that it was easier to cover China from Taiwan than from China itself. In a similar way to the media understanding that covering North Korea is easier from Seoul than from Pyongyang, he discovered that access to information regarding China is “in many ways better” in Taiwan.

“In Taiwan, by contrast, there are a lot of academics and think tanks and analysts that are following the development[s] in China very close[ly] and are more than happy to give interview[s] to foreign media,” Olsson said.

“A flourishing civil society [in Taiwan is also] ready to assist and help with your research. The government is also very available … if you are looking to interview locals from a certain profession or with a certain background, the government will often also help you to find and contact interviewees.”

Olsson also found the process of applying for a press accreditation card with Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be “extremely smooth” and “very accommodating” with clear instructions.

Access to government officials is better in Taiwan than in his native Sweden Olsson discovered, noting that several Taiwanese ministers also hold regular press conferences for foreign press and have given several exclusive interviews with foreign journalists.

Luring foreign media

While many nations might find hosting a large community of foreign reporters irksome, Taipei has a different attitude.

Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said in a press briefing at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Taipei Friday on May 10 that Taiwan now has “more and more” international press coming to Taiwan to set up bureaus, adding that Taiwan is welcoming of international journalists.

“If we ask around, ask reporters here in Taiwan, especially the international reporters, international media, I think that’s the best way to detect whether press freedom in one particular country is good or bad,” he told Asia Times.

The minister added that Taipei “will continue to provide any kind of necessary assistance to the international journalists who want to cover Taiwan and issues related to Taiwan,” and will also grant foreign journalists to have access to himself.

He vowed to maintain Taiwan’s press freedom as among the best, if not the best, in Asia.

Polarity, gossip, inadequate resources

So why has Taiwan fallen in the press freedom rankings? The Index reported Taiwan’s media independence is “on hold” as “Taiwan’s journalists are suffering from a very polarized media environment dominated by sensationalism and the pursuit of profit” despite its low tolerance for political interference.

“Although President Tsai Ing-wen has said she wants to continue developing press freedom in Taiwan, few concrete measures have been taken to improve journalists’ editorial independence and encourage media to raise the quality of public debate,” the report added.

Olsson has noticed a political polarization. Most outlets in Taiwan are either aligning themselves with the pan-Green camp that traditionally supports Taiwan’s independence or the pan-Blue camp that traditionally advocates Taiwan’s unification with China, he said.

Moreover, domestic news outlets seldom go in-depth into global news or foreign affairs, Olsson reckons, instead focusing on domestic news with what he described as “gossip characteristics.”

Chien-san Feng, a journalism professor at the College of Communication of the National Chengchi University, was also critical of local media.

“[The government] has been hesitating to invest in public service media, though recently it does try to boost the investment in public television, but it is not enough and is not stable,” he said in an email interview.

“If you make comparison with, say, the Nordic countries, then you can see Taiwan’s media doesn’t have adequate resources at its disposal and therefore cannot afford to provide qualitative information, be it investigative reporting or diverse coverage of various topics,” he continued.

He was less worried about Taiwan’s fall in international rankings, than in the quality of domestic media.

“This is especially evident in Taiwan’s TV 24-hours news channels,” Feng said. “Starting from the mid-1990s, we have over seven or eight such channels providing not very different content, with low quality.”

China’s influence

There is also a more worrisome force influencing Taiwan’s local mediascape.

“Beijing is … putting pressure on Taiwanese media owners, who often have business interests on the mainland … Beijing is also suspected of orchestrating online disinformation campaigns,” the Press Freedom Index noted.

Chien-san Feng, a journalism professor at the College of Communication of the National Chengchi University. Photo courtesy of Chien-san Feng

Feng agrees. “China has been wishing to influence Taiwan’s politics, media and societies by every possible means,” he said.

Beijing’s media and other policies are emblematic of a wider regional problem that is casting a long shadow across the broad field of Asian journalism. It is this regional problem that is buoying Taiwan’s reputation as a beacon of press freedom.

“One of the reasons for Taiwan being on of the nations with the freest press in Asia, is that Asia is filled with dictatorships and authoritarian governments,” Olsson said. “So, one factor that puts Taiwan on top of Asia is that a majority of the countries in the region have an extremely poor record of press freedom.”