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Black and white and "red" all over?

A US report has sparked concerns about China's increasing influence over Taiwan's media.

A man reads a newspaper in a park adorned with campaign flags in the southern city of Kaohsiung, five days before the polls on Dec. 6, 2004. (Stringer/Reuters)

TAIPEI — Many Taiwanese look up to the United States, and are hyper-sensitive to any American criticism.

So when the U.S. group Freedom House released its recent report on press freedom, it launched a round of hand-wringing. The reason: Freedom House downgraded Taiwan's press freedom ranking, to 43 from 32 last year. Last year it rated Taiwan's media as Asia's "freest" — this year that honor went to Japan. (See the report here .)

More dramatically, Freedom House docked neighboring Hong Kong's press to "partly free" from "free," due to what it described as increased Chinese influence over the territory's media.

Journalists I spoke to were puzzled by some of Freedom House's conclusions about Taiwan.

But on one point, everyone seems to agree: China's influence over Taiwan's media is growing — and if it's not careful, the media here could share Hong Kong's fate.

"If Taiwan's media cannot resist penetration by China, Taiwan will before long go the same way as Hong Kong," Leon Chuang, chairman of the Association of Taiwan Journalists, wrote in a recent editorial.

Freedom House's report calls out the island and two other countries for knuckle-rapping: "Declines in Israel, Italy and Taiwan illustrate that established democracies with traditionally open media are not immune to restricting media freedom."

The poor grades from Freedom House were also particularly stinging here because Taiwan's freewheeling media is key part of the island's political success story: from heavy-handed autocracy to vibrant democracy.

“The decline shows there is room for improvement,” a government spokesman reportedly said, promising to study ways to improve.

Freedom House cited "allegations of increased official pressure on editorial content" and "harassment of reporters trying to cover news events" as reasons for Taiwan's lower score.

It didn't specifically mention growing Chinese influence. But in an e-mail, Freedom House's Asia Researcher Sarah Cook told me, "It’s a dynamic that has appeared in Hong Kong and caused concern, so it’s one of the things we will be trying to watch [in Taiwan] in 2009."