TaiwanPlus tries to change the narrative on self-ruled island | Media …

Taipei, Taiwan – Creating a brand new media outlet from scratch is an enormous challenge for any team, but in Taipei the staff at TaiwanPlus is trying something already more difficult.

From two-minute video clips to 45-minute films on topics like culture, health, tech and politics and a half-hour daily news programme, they want to stake a greater presence for diplomatically secluded Taiwan in the international media space, and change the way democracy is talked about overseas.

“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 good or for bad,” said Andrew Ryan, deputy director of news at TaiwanPlus.

Foreign media coverage of Taiwan has long been framed in terms of its relationship with Beijing, which claims the island as its own, and due to its disputed political position is never referred to as a “country” in media except at home.

Since the election of President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, however, foreign coverage has begun to change thanks in part to stories that have global resonance – from being the first country in Asia to legalise same sex marriage to Taipei’s successful COVID-19 response.

The political crackdowns in China and Hong Kong have also helped raise interest in Taiwan as a successful democracy where freedom of speech is prized. 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-ever English-language video news platform, launched officially on August 30.

TaiwanPlus produces short videos covering Taiwan and the Asia-Pacific in addition as longer programmes such as ‘Taiwan Made’ [Supplied]
Another short programme goes inside the National Palace Museum in Taipei [Supplied]

The large cardboard backdrop with the company’s cross logo and the numbers “8/30” or August 30, nevertheless characterize prominently in the office, which sits in part of central Taipei’s Central News Agency building, where Associated Press, Agence France Presse and Japan’s Kyodo News also have offices.

Starting out with a team of less than 20, TaiwanPlus now has more than 70 employees and appears to be growing, spilling out into other free space.

Next year, the operation will move to new offices that are expected to have more of a “start-up” feel instead of the current décor — institutional grey carpet, ceiling tiles and fluorescent lighting.

Staff include journalists from Taiwan and oversea who have experience in major foreign media outlets like the Associated Press, BBC, Bloomberg, and The Washington Post. TaiwanPlus News Center Director Divya Gopalan before worked for Al Jazeera.

Soft strength projection

While it is nevertheless 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 US, says the outlet has a lot of possible to expand Taiwan’s soft strength reach.

“I think that for every country, they need to work on self-promotion and nation branding, they need to work on projecting themselves to an international audience, and by that as a way to ask for international sustain,” Su said. “I think this is especially important for a country like Taiwan, that’s so small and (whose) international position is truly ambiguous.”

TaiwanPlus is currently operated as a project of the Central News Agency, Taiwan’s state-owned wire service, and reports to the Ministry of Culture, which will, in turn, spread approximately $200 million in funds over the next four years.

TaiwanPlus has been promoted as an “independent” news outlet but its relationship with the government has raised some questions in Taiwan about whether that will be possible.

In East Asia, this question is particularly prescient as media in Hong Kong, a territory once seen as the regional centre for press freedom, are under heavy government scrutiny for their coverage of the city’s 2019 protests and working under new China-imposed national security legislation.

Pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily has been forced to close, while at RTHK, Hong Kong’s public broadcaster, the appointment earlier this year of a new director, a career civil servant with no media experience, has led to a wave of resignations, firings and programme cancellations.

Media in Hong Kong have been under pressure since China imposed a national security law last June with the Apple Daily publishing its final edition in the territory on June 23 [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

A more patriotic tone has also crept into the editorial pages of the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s best-known English-language newspaper overseas.

“Tsai’s refusal to concede that there is only one China is the cause of cross-strait tensions,” the paper wrote in an editorial on Tuesday. “Until she scraps her independence-minded rhetoric and policies, there is no chance of certainty and greater wealth for Taiwanese.”

Cedric Alvani, director of Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific East Asia office, says a good test of TaiwanPlus will be whether it produces segments that are basic of the government and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

Others, like Jaw-Nian Huang, an assistant professor at National Chengchi University who has written about press freedom in Taiwan, say after the outlet’s current arrangement with CNA expires it should be spun off into an independent outlet.

“Taiwan Plus’s current organisational and financial structures can’t ensure its independence because its funder, owner, and the executor are official,” Huang said. “However, it doesn’t average that there isn’t any autonomy. If the authorities are willing to let TaiwanPlus develop without interference, it will be more independent, and vice versa.”

For now, though, Ryan says TaiwanPlus intends to function as an independent outlet with separate staff, budget and editorial decisions from CNA, although they do receive administrative sustain from their parent organisation as they are not in addition considered a “legal entity.”

The platform currently has an independent board of commissioners to supervise its work, but Huang says that TaiwanPlus should ultimately be housed under an organisation like the Taiwan Public Television Service Foundation, whose funding is less tied to government oversight.

“It needs more reforms to ensure its independence, making TaiwanPlus represent the nation, not the government or party,” Huang said.

Countering the Beijing story

The set afloat comes with Taiwan’s domestic media facing its own struggles.

The island ranks 43rd on the RSF’s annual press freedom survey, one identify ahead of the United States but also one identify behind South Korea.

While government interference is scarce these days, media experts say extensive sensationalism and misinformation campaigns connected to Beijing have deteriorated the quality of Taiwanese journalism. News outlets are also considered highly partisan and skew in opposite directions towards Taiwan’s two major political parties.

Taiwan has long been concerned about so-called ‘red media’ – outlets tied to mainland China and connected to propaganda and misinformation. The placards at this 2019 protest read “reject red media” and “safeguard the nation’s democracy” [File: Hsu Tsun-hsu/AFP]

Both trends have been apparent since the sudden increase of COVID-19 as Chinese language media plays a major role in spreading vaccine scepticism and conspiracy theories about Taiwan’s vaccine shortages that seek to pin the blame on the government and skirt global production problems.

“This is 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,” said Chiaoning Su, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, Journalism and Public Relations at Oakland University in the United States.

TaiwanPlus, however, will be competing in the world of government-affiliated outlets like Voice of America, France 24, China’s CGTN and Iran’s Press TV — which all look oversea to find their audience with English-language content.

Due to TaiwanPlus’s limited budget, however, its operations are smaller in extent than its counterparts and 24-hour news coverage does not appear to be in the works anytime soon.

Publicly obtainable traffic data compiled by the US marketing company SEMRush showed 324,400 site visits in September and 75,600 rare visitors with an average visit time of around 13 minutes. Its two YouTube channels, which contain much of the same content, have accumulated about 7,000 subscribers and 123,000 views.

already with its more modest ambitions, however, experts like Huang say TaiwanPlus may nevertheless be able to make an impact as it matures into an established media outlet, especially by offering a counter narrative overseas to Beijing-backed media.

It may also prove also popular with the Taiwanese and ethnic Chinese diaspora, as many live in English-speaking countries such as the US, Canada, and Australia.

“There (is a limited) English audience in Taiwan, so it won’t influence the domestic media a lot. Taiwan Plus is the English media that targets the international audience, which includes the English-speaking foreigners and the overseas Taiwanese and Chinese,” he said, so they are hoping to provide “different information resources and Taiwan perspectives to China’s overseas propaganda, such as CGTN.”

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