The launch of Taiwan+ in late August attracted the attention of many observers, some of whom praised the platform for its sharply produced and well-reported content. Yet concerns remain over whether a state-funded media outlet can be a truly objective source of news and information on Taiwan.
Britain has the BBC; the U.S. has NPR, PBS, and Voice of America for overseas audiences, while Japan has the NHK. Now Taiwan, too, has its own public service media, albeit a 21st-century version composed of a streaming platform, mobile app, and a handful of social media accounts. TaiwanPlus (also rendered as Taiwan+) was launched on August 30 to much fanfare. In its first year, it will receive NT$775 million (about US$28 million) from the Ministry of Culture (MOC) and will be managed by the semi-official Central News Agency.
With the stated goal of “Bringing Taiwan to the World,” the English-language channel (www.taiwanplus.com), which currently employs around 70 staff, features Taiwan-focused news, documentaries, and entertainment. At the launch party, President Tsai Ing-wen said in a video message that Taiwan’s “story deserves to be told by Taiwanese voices… We need to tell it in ways we have not told it before.” The time is ripe for such a project, say many, as the West becomes increasingly disillusioned with Beijing’s more hostile posture and free speech is eroded in Hong Kong.
This ambitious endeavor, however, is faced with two key challenges. First, how can Taiwan+, as a state-funded media outlet, avoid being seen as propaganda? Comparisons to China’s state-owned China Global Television Network (CGTN) and Sixth Tone, a more Western-friendly web-based publication owned by the Shanghai United Media Group, cropped up on cautious tweets after the site’s launch. An even more daunting question was how will Taiwan+ drive international interest in Taiwan?
For anyone invested in Taiwan’s democracy, a new outward-looking media outlet on the island would appear to be a good thing.
“It’s no secret that for a long time Taiwan has had a deficit of exposure and it’s always good to have one additional English language media” outlet, says Cédric Alviani, the East Asia Bureau head of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an NGO focused on press freedom. He welcomes Taiwan+’s launch, adding that in an environment where misinformation and disinformation can easily proliferate, news and information produced by trustworthy local sources is increasingly important.
On the surface, Taiwan+ has all the bells and whistles of a regular news and entertainment website: an animated logo, breezy jingles, twice-daily news bulletins, and a wide variety of programs on topics spanning travel, history, technology, and drama, among others. In addition to in-house productions, content comes from a mixture of state-owned media including CNA and the Taiwan Public Television Service Foundation (PTS), as well as commercial outfits such as National Geographic and Discovery. The result resembles parts of Netflix, History Channel, CNN, and the Taiwan Tourism Bureau, a new concept that may be confusing to some.
“We are trying to build a destination for Taiwan so that people with different purposes can understand Taiwan,” explains Taiwan+ CEO Joanne Tsai, a former member of the AmCham Taiwan Board of Governors whose media experience includes lengthy stints with National Geographic and Fox International. One of the platform’s more popular offerings so far, she notes, has been PTS’ historical drama series SEQALU: Formosa 1867.
Pundits have welcomed the focus on video and its social media-friendly format as a way to reach younger audiences and keep up with how news is being consumed internationally. “Most local English-language media are text-based. We need more audio-visual media to tell Taiwan’s stories,” says Hung Chen-ling, a professor at National Taiwan University’s Graduate Institute of Journalism. Taiwan+ Deputy News Director Andrew Ryan, who previously spent two decades at state-media outlet Radio Taiwan International, describes video as “a modern way of story-telling.”
Brian Hioe, the Taiwanese-American co-founder of New Bloom, an English-language online magazine that covers “activism and youth politics” in the region, notes that promotion of the platform will be key to its success. “Hopefully a savvy social media presence will allow this to get more views,” he says, pointing out that other Taiwanese English-language media have failed in this regard.
Given Taiwan’s struggle to be recognized on the international stage, Taiwan+ faces considerable challenges in getting people interested in the island. Joanne Tsai explains that in the first stage, they are hoping to exploit word of mouth among people already won over by the East Asian democracy. “We want to reach out to the core and then spread,” she says, referring to Taiwanese living overseas and foreigners who went back home after studying, working, or traveling in Taiwan. The expectation is that these viewers will forward the content to their friends and family so that more of the world will learn about Taiwan and stop “confusing Taiwan with Thailand.” But it is going to take time, she warns. “It’s like building a brand… it won’t change overnight.”
To keep visitors coming back to the site, Ryan says they will leverage both exclusive content and blockbuster features, such as Seqalu, which was only available internationally on Taiwan+ for the month of September. They will also focus on issues that are “tangentially related to Taiwan” and “bespoke pieces,” such as programs on teaching Mandarin, food, and travel, he adds.
NTU’s Hung has some additional advice. “Taiwan+ should tell stories that are relevant to the global audience or make them feel relevant,” she says, singling out Taiwan’s semiconductor industry, democratic transformation, record of standing up to China, and successful COVID-19 prevention measures.
While there are concerns about the source of this media’s funding, such a costly and unprofitable project is highly unlikely to have been launched through private investment. As RSF’s Alviani notes, Taiwan+ “would probably never have existed without the financial support provided by the Ministry.” Even so, as a government-funded project, Taiwan+ must still convince its viewers that it’s not a government mouthpiece.
Accepting state funds does not necessarily have to mean that a media outlet is compromised. Besides the fact that private media often carry an agenda of their own, there are also successful state media models around the world.
“The BBC, Al Jazeera, and NPR offer examples of how publicly-funded media outlets can, in fact, act as soft power arms for their respective countries while still offering critical coverage, or perhaps precisely because of it,” says Hioe of New Bloom. Such broadcasters are often called “public service media” to distinguish them from propaganda produced by authoritarian states. More importantly, though, they all use a model, like the BBC’s Royal Charter, that guarantees their legal independence from the ruling administration.
“What we are asking is for the [MOC] and CNA to provide this media with sufficient guarantees of independence so that there would never be any doubt that despite the original funding, this media is able to report independently of the government,” says RSF’s Alviani.
Such protections are not yet in place for Taiwan+. That is expected to change, though. Currently, the streaming service is operated on a yearly rolling basis, with the MOC awarding the bid every June. But Tsai says discussions are underway about enacting legislation within the next two years that would enable Taiwan+ to continue operations long-term with guaranteed funding, regardless of whether the ruling party approves of its content. The current dependency on the MOC, however, means that there is “too much uncertainty for Taiwan+ and the team,” says NTU’s Hung.
Ryan strongly denies any government interference. “We do have editorial independence,” he says, adding that his team has “100% control” over what content is featured on the platform. “We have not been given any directives from either CNA or the government on what kind of news we can or cannot have.”
A quick scan through some of the news media programs on offer on the Taiwan+ website shows them to be professionally produced, neither hardcore propaganda nor hard-hitting journalism. For example, loopholes in the same sex marriage law were reported at length; however, another piece on migrant fishermen did not adequately cover what is arguably the defining story about these laborers – allegations that some Taiwanese fishing vessels treat them as modern-day slaves.
In its early days, the platform won a mixed reception. “Based on the time of preparation and resources it owns, the outcome of Taiwan+ is ok,” says Hung. “The website shows the diversity of this country, including culture, lifestyle, technology, and nature.” However, others have questioned the heavily positive nature of the content.
Wasiq Silan, a graduate student from Taiwan at the University of Helsinki in Finland who researches social policy and Taiwan’s Tayal Indigenous minority says she found the videos released for its launch to be a “strange propaganda-like selection,” adding “I [would] feel uneasy recommending Taiwan+ to anybody, as the Taiwan that I feel part of should celebrate our differences and be critical of ourselves.”
New Bloom’s Hioe also expresses some disappointment with Taiwan+’s initial offerings. “Some of the launch content wasn’t the most inspiring and came off not too different from heavy-handed tourist advertising,” he says.
Hioe urges the streaming service to grow some teeth. “It is this [critical coverage] that Taiwan+ should aim for if it wants to bring Taiwan to the world, rather than videos that are no different than tourist fare,” he says. “The Tsai Administration trumpeted the founding of Taiwan+ as an accomplishment in terms of domestic politics, as an effort to make Taiwan known on the international stage, but it’s also possible that it primarily simply wishes to tout this as an accomplishment without having to do the legwork to genuinely make this happen,” he says.
Alviani cautions that if the purpose of Taiwan+ is to promote Taiwan abroad, then it should not be considered journalism. “It might be better to create a promotion agency,” he says.
But perhaps for now, especially with the question of its funding model unresolved, the best approach is to give the media channel space to prove itself.
Ryan insists that Taiwan+ will tell Taiwan’s bad stories along with its good; the team just needs a bit of time to find their feet. “It doesn’t really mean anything if we are only telling positive stories about Taiwan,” he says, adding that they will be soliciting third-party feedback down the line to help them improve.
He urges viewers to give Taiwan+ a chance. “I would encourage people to follow us over a span of time and evaluate a body of work rather than the first week,” he says. “Over time, you will see the type of reporting that we hope to do.”
Tsai, who says she tries to keep out of editorial decisions, agrees. “Truth be told, the team is still trying to struggle with the logistics,” she says. “We’re still not there yet.”
Taiwan’s English-Language Media
- TaiwanPlus: Launched in September 2021. Video-streaming service featuring news, entertainment, and documentaries.
- Focus Taiwan: Professionally designed web-based English-language wire service operated by state news agency CNA.
- Radio Taiwan International (RTI): Radio station and website with multimedia programming. RTI’s main audience is overseas, and the station broadcasts in 14 languages.
- PTS English News: 45-minute daily news program on the Public Television Service channel. PTS English also runs a text-based website featuring offbeat and culture-focused news stories.
- Taipei Times: Sister publication to the pan-green Chinese-language Liberty Times. Maintains both a widely circulated print edition and a recently revamped website.
- Commonwealth Magazine: Print magazine and website featuring business reporting and in-depth analysis of current affairs. English version is online-only, and its content is syndicated in other publications, including Taiwan Business TOPICS.
- The News Lens International: A “millennial-focused digital news media platform” that offers Taiwan and regional coverage, analysis, and, more recently, a useful vaccination tracker.
- Taiwan News: Online news outlet owned by local foods producer I-Mei Foods. While it covers general news stories in Taiwan, its often sensationalist treatment of social and China-related issues attracts a lot of attention.
- Ketagalan Media: Website with feature stories on a wide range of political, economic, and social topics. Started out as a podcast.
- International Community Radio Taipei (ICRT): Taiwan’s most established English-language radio station. Run as a non-profit and offering a mix of talk, music, and news shows.
- Taiwan Business TOPICS: Monthly publication and online platform published by AmCham Taiwan and focused on business and economic reporting and analysis.