The Changing Roles of Media in Taiwan’s Democratization Process


The purpose of this paper is to shed light on the role of the media in Taiwan’s democratization process and to provide a proposal for the media to play a more positive role in improving the consolidation of Taiwan’s democratization.

On July 15, 1987, then-President Chiang Ching-kuo lifted martial law and new political parties were allowed to form. In January of the following year, the ban on new newspapers was also lifted. Since then, Taiwan and its media have entered a whole new era. Now, two decades after the end of martial law, the people of Taiwan enjoy many fundamental rights: freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly, among others. Taiwan is widely considered a free and democratic country, with the same political rights and civil liberties as those in the United States and many European nations. In fact, in its global Freedom of the Press Survey released on April 28, 2008, Freedom House ranked Taiwan as having the 32nd freest media, among 195 countries—and it was ranked higher than any other Asian nation in both 2007 and 2008.[1] However, in 2009 when Taiwan experienced its second change in ruling party, its ranking in the Freedom House survey fell from the first place in Asia to second, and its global ranking fell to 43rd. Freedom House reported “Media in Taiwan faced assault and growing government pressure.”[2] This shows that in Taiwan political factors are difficult to avoid in the development of the media and freedom of the press, especially at sensitive times of political transition.

Over the past 20 years, Taiwan has been undergoing enormous political change, transforming from authoritarianism to democracy. During this period, however, Taiwan’s image abroad has been that of an extremely contentious society, uneasy with itself and beset with endless (and, to some, mindless) conflicts between different factions. The Taiwanese media have reinforced this perception. Despite progress in securing freedom of the press in Taiwan, the media have come to play a controversial and often negative role in Taiwan’s democratization process.

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 2005 that the Taiwanese media have gone “from lapdog to mad dog” in recent decades. He lamented the “sensationalism, partisanship and corruption that characterize the business.”[3] The article, titled “They Can’t Handle the Truth,”goes on to say that “Taiwan’s no-holds-barred journalism is alternately seen as a gutsy check on authority and the embodiment of chaos.” There is evidence that the Taiwanese people are growing tired of the endless conflict between political parties. There is also evidence, however, that they detest the recklessness and ruthlessness of the media. A study presented in 2006 by Edelman, an international public relations firm, shows that only 1 percent of Taiwanese view the media as a trusted information source—the lowest rate in the Asia-Pacific area. (The highest figure for the region was in India, where the media trust rating was 50 percent.)[4]

These contradictory images reflect the complexity of the role of the media in Taiwan’s democratization. Taiwan’s democracy is vigorous, and so is its media, despite a poor image. This paper will examine the media’s roles during the period of martial law as well as its impact on current democratization efforts, on provincial ethnic problems, and on political divisions (such as the pan-Blue coalition that opposes Taiwan independence, and the pan-Green bloc which favors Taiwan independence). The analysis will distinguish between big media (which can be characterized as “mainstream” and “establishment”) and small media (which may be called “marginal” or “alternative”). It will also discuss the deterioration of quality that has accompanied the media’s adaptation to the process of commercialization. This paper should provide a better understanding of the relationship between the media and Taiwan’s democratization, and may ultimately become part of the discussion on creating a healthier relationship.

[1] “Freedom of the Press 2008 Survey Release,” Freedom House, April 29, 2008; (accessed July 17, 2009).

[2] “Freedom of the Press 2009 Survey Release,” Freedom House, May 1, 2009; (accessed July 17, 2009).

[3] Mark Magnier, “They Can’t Handle the Truth,” Los Angeles Times, February 28, 2005; (accessed July 7, 2009).

3 See “The media has lost the public’s trust,” Editorial, Taipei Times, October 26, 2006, Page 8; (accessed July 14, 2009).