Historically, the ROC government on Taiwan has subjected all written materials to rigorous censorship. Since the lifting of martial law, the authorities have shown much greater tolerance for printed criticism. However, the government retains censorship powers, continues to enforce limits on freedom of expression and retains effective control over broadcasting.
The authorities have used a variety of mechanisms to control the media. All publications must obtain government licenses, and from 1951 to 1988, the authorities limited the number of licenses available for publishing daily newspapers to 31, with the number of pages in each paper also subject to a legal limit (first eight and then 12 pages). This was supposedly due to a "paper shortage." During this period, many of the newspapers were directly owned by the government, the military, or the KMT party. Private newspaper publisher were usually KMT members. The only paper to feature occasional moderate criticisms of the government (along with some of the best news reporting) was the Independence Evening Post; the authorities refused to allow it to publish for the more lucrative morning market until 1988.
Despite these restrictions, licenses have been available for the publication of monthly and weekly magazines. During martial law, the military (along with the Government Information Office) regularly subjected newspapers and magazines to pre-publication review. Those containing materials deemed "unprintable," such as criticism of government policies, calls for greater democracy, or pictures of Chinese Communist leaders, were subject to censorship of the offending article, banning of the entire issue, or license suspensions. The government retains these censorship powers, although it has used them much less regularly since 1987. Wire services, foods, and imported publications are also subject to government review and occasional bans or censorship.
The authors of material which offends the KMT are subject to reprisals as well. In the 1980s, KMT and government officials repeatedly filed criminal libel suits against opposition journalists. Although in several instances the writers offered to prove the truth of their stories, these suits frequently led to jail terms. Some critical writers have faced still longer terms in prison for "sedition," or even murder, as in the case of Henry Liu.
In the mid-1980s, opposition publications became bolder, leading the authorities to step up censorship and libel suits. It was generally possible to obtain "banned" materials despite censorship orders, and publishers began acquiring multiple licenses to insure against suspensions. Toward the end of martial law, a few publications even ignored banning orders altogether. There were also demonstrations against censorship, and numerous reports by international human rights groups on Taiwan’s high rate of censorship and high number of jailed journalists.
Since the lifting of martial law, censorship has declined but has not vanished. Lively new magazines have appeared on the scene, notably The Journalist, which has featured in-depth coverage of politics and social issues combined with editorial criticism of both the government and the opposition. The authorities continue to suppress printed discussion of Taiwan independence, military corruption, and the involvement of the military in politics, and to subject people who write about these topics to prison terms.
In January 1988, the authority lifted the ban on new newspapers and increased the page limit to 32. Since then, the government has issued over 200 licenses, and 50 papers are actually publishing. Like the magazines, papers have become much bolder in their willingness to publish investigative and analytical articles, as well as editorials criticizing government policy. Some independent newspapers including The Common Daily, The Independent Post, and The Liberty Times have become more critical in their editorial stance. However, the staunchly pro-KMT China Times and United Daily continue to dominate the market, with the other papers competing to serve as reader’s second newspaper. Total circulation of all dailies is nearly six million copies.
The authorities have also liberalized their past ban on reprinting materials from the mainland, and their suppression of publication styles used there.
The government retains extremely tight control over broadcasting, in contrast to the more relaxed climate for publications. The state or KMT party own all three television networks and the government owns 12 of 33 radio stations. The remaining stations are controlled by the KMT party or are owned by party loyalists.
The authorities severely restrict the amount of time devoted to broadcasts in the Taiwanese dialect, which have generally been limited to soap operas and game shows rather than public affairs programming. In 1987, the government finally agreed to allow 20-30 minute daily television news broadcasts in Hoklo, along with simultaneous radio translations in Hoklo of Mandarin television broadcasts. International Community Radio Taiwan (ICRT), which serves the expatriate community, is permitted to broadcasts in English 24 hours a day. Television and radio news is heavily biased in favor of the KMT, and ICRT is among the worst offenders. ICRT recently dismissed two reporters for devoting too much attention to opposition politics.
The authorities have repeatedly denied applications for licenses to start new radio or television networks, citing a "lack of frequencies." The opposition DPP has challenged this monopoly by distributing videotapes and by setting up "underground" television stations. The government has seized the equipment of these stations and jailed one reporter involved in their creation.