TaiwanPlus tries to change the narrative on self-ruled island

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 even 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 isolated 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 status 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 boost 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.

The large cardboard backdrop with the company’s cross logo and the numbers “8/30” or August 30, still feature 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 rather than the current décor — institutional grey carpet, ceiling tiles and fluorescent lighting.

Soft power projection

While it is still 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 potential to expand Taiwan’s soft power 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 through that as a way to ask for international support,” Su said. “I think this is especially important for a country like Taiwan, that’s so small and (whose) international status is actually 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, distribute 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.

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