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As Taiwan's media flounders, so does its democracy

As Taiwan's media flounders, so does its democracy
This handout photo taken on March 30, 2019, courtesy of doctor Horng Chi-ting shows "sweat bees" in a patient's eye in the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung. Four tiny "sweat bees" that had been living in a Taiwanese woman's eye. (HANDOUT / AFP/Getty Images)

For those of you horrified by the “sweat bees” story in your social media feeds this week — the one about the woman who supposedly had four of the tiny bees living in her left eye, feeding on her tears — I offer this caveat: It came from Taiwan. Take it with a grain of salt.

I don’t mean to knock the media there — it’s a lovely place, filled with lovely people — but they give me no choice. During a five-day journalism fellowship on the self-ruled island last month, we were told again and again just how bad they are. The TV journalists are largely ratings driven and likely to run with any old sensational claim, or they’re the dummies to China’s ventriloquist, officials said. And the print journalists are overworked and underpaid, forced to crank out a half dozen pieces a day with no time for deep dives, fact-checking or government watchdogging; they’re also understandably scared to call out their Communist neighbors to the north, across the Taiwan Strait, for meddling in their affairs.

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I initially thought this was all a bit of bluster. Here in America, we’ve grown accustomed to politicians in particular crying “fake news!” whenever the reporting doesn’t favor them (and I’m not just talking about Donald Trump). But then our group of seven U.S. journalists met with a handful of Taiwanese journalists and media professors at the end of the week. It was eye opening. In the way four bees drinking your tears is eye opening. And by that, I mean painful.

The group essentially confirmed the complaints we’d heard earlier during a marathon of meetings with various important people (including Taiwan’s vice president), all arranged by Ming Chuan University, which co-sponsored the fellowship alongside the East-West Center, a non-profit based in Honolulu that’s funded by the U.S. government.

The local broadcast journalists shrugged off the problems as the nature of the beast, yadda, yadda, while the professors wrung their hands and one suggested that foreign media should report on Chinese control of their airwaves first, so they could report on the report. It’s gotten so bad, that one Taiwanese official left a suicide note last year blaming his death on fake news over how he handled tourists stranded by a hurricane, and a member of the Mainland Affairs Council, which sets Taiwan’s policies toward mainland China, suggested in a meeting with our delegation that the government should really regulate Taiwan’s so-called “free” press.

I point this out not just in the hopes you’ll fall to your knees and thank the powers that be for America’s relatively robust fourth estate, but to show the environment in which Taiwan — a United States’ unofficial bestie — is fighting for its democratic way of life. The quasi-nation of 23 million people has been governed independently from mainland China since 1949 and a certified democracy since 1996 when it held its first presidential election, yet the sense is that Chinese President-for-life Xi Jinping could forcefully snap it back up whenever he wants.

He’s already doing all he can to isolate it from the rest of the world through implied threats and bribes, flexing his military muscle in Taiwan’s air space and sowing divisions between Taiwan’s liberal DPP party, which took over the nation’s presidency in 2016 (led by a woman at that!) and the conservative KMT party. The former leans toward formal independence, while the latter just wants to be left alone. Neither scenario will make Mr. Xi happy in the longterm; he’s operating under a rather creepy George McFly philosophy that reunification with Taiwan is his “density, I mean… destiny.”

Meanwhile, President Trump has put Taiwan in the position of being a potential pawn in his dealings with China, sending mixed messages about its independence, even as his administration sings its praises. “Taiwan is a democratic success story, a reliable partner and a force for good,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gushed in a statement in February.

If we’re such good friends, unofficially of course (we succumbed to China’s will and broke official diplomatic ties 40 years ago, though we still sell Taiwan arms and maintain sundry other security and economic commitments), perhaps we should step up our support to the level we offer Israel. Each is a beacon of democracy in undemocratic corners of the world.

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We could get a little more involved in the South China Sea, for example, where Mr. Xi has been plundering, pillaging and piling up his own personal military bases. On a similar fellowship I went on three years ago to mainland China — also a lovely, if smoggy, place, with lovely people — officials said the South China Sea, like Taiwan, was always China’s property and simply being reclaimed. More destiny. (Incidentally, they also denied that world domination was China’s end goal. Feel better? Yeah, me neither.)

Of course, the same forces at work in Taiwan — fake news, foreign meddling, partisan divides — are operating in America, too. But our democracy is in its third century; it’s worn and weathered and can still bend to withstand the occasional storm. Taiwan’s democracy is in its third decade, a newcomer I fear won’t bend under the pressure, but break.

Tricia Bishop is The Sun's deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Her email is tricia.bishop@baltsun.com; Twitter: @triciabishop.

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