Under an administration that has faced its share of criticism by free speech advocates and journalists’ associations over the past three years, news last week that a row between New Tang Dynasty Television (NTD) and Chunghwa Telecom had been resolved was reason to rejoice.
Following weeks of uncertainty over whether Chunghwa Telecom, Taiwan’s largest telecommunications operator, would reverse its decision not to renew the broadcasting contract for NTD once it switched transmission to a new satellite in August, officials confirmed that an agreement had been reached and that the 3 million or so people in Taiwan who subscribe to the channel would continue to be able to watch it.
Chunghwa Telecom’s initial reaction, which contained both contradictions over alleged technical limitations and signs of intransigence, only inflamed speculation that the decision to drop NTD, well known for its critical reportage on the Chinese Communist Party, may have been political. The fact that the initial decision coincided with news that Chunghwa Telecom was expanding into the Chinese market could only compound fears that the company had struck a Faustian deal for reasons of access to the huge market across the Taiwan Strait.
Facing a sustained campaign by journalistic organizations and the principals at NTD — some of whom flew in from New York, where the station has its headquarters — and with voices of support from within the legislature, the government — which owns shares in Chunghwa Telecom — eventually decided to intervene, with Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) calling a meeting of representatives and promising NTD that he would do his utmost to ensure a positive outcome.
Whatever the cause, pressure by the government and the relentless campaign organized by NTD supporters finally prevailed and Chunghwa Telecom agreed to accommodate the station once the ST-2 satellite becomes operational.
Not only is this development cause for celebration, it also demonstrates that when core principles, such as freedom of expression, are concerned, concerted pressure on companies or the government — which in this case even included threats by a US lawmaker to abandon his support for Taiwan if the decision were not reversed — succeed, even when such reversals can cause problems for Taipei or the companies involved.
There is little doubt that without the mobilization against Chunghwa Telecom and the pressure on President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration to intervene, NTD would have been dropped and an irritant to Beijing removed. Now that Chunghwa Telecom has agreed to continue carrying NTD, millions of Chinese will potentially be able to access, if only by illegal means, its programming, providing them with a precious alternative to the state-controlled propaganda they are otherwise forced to watch.
This also means that Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan can, should they choose to do so, watch NTD from the comfort of their hotel rooms.
Whoever, in government and at Chunghwa Telecom, was responsible for ensuring that Taiwan remains a country where freedom of expression is indeed expressed should be saluted for this outcome. Technical difficulties were surmounted and political pressure, which there undoubtedly was, was also overcome.
NTD’s victory should serve as an inspiration for all those in Taiwan and its supporters abroad who fight for its hard-earned freedoms in the face of what often appears an insurmountable challenge posed by authoritarian China. It also serves as a reminder that sometimes things we take for granted will be taken away by powers who abide by a different set of values, unless we fight for them. Not every round will be won, but we came out on top in this one.