The latest study by the US-based human rights watchdog Freedom House, released on Wednesday, gave Taiwan good scores for its political rights and civil liberties, but voiced concern about some media acquisitions it believes could hurt diversity and press freedom.
The concern voiced in the Freedom in the World 2013 report is worth highlighting, coming as it does in the wake of recent protests by university students and others upset by growing media monopolization and creeping pro-Beijing coverage in this nation.
For its report, the watchdog group uses a scale from one (most free) to seven (least free), and Taiwan scored one for political rights and two for civil liberties, unchanged from the previous year’s report.
Arch Puddington, the group’s vice president for research, said Taiwan’s political system was “vigorous,” adding that “the workings of Taiwan’s democracy have basically prevented democratic institutions from being seriously eroded.”
That was the good news.
For the not-so-good news, the report pointed to the conditional approval by government regulators in July last year of the Want Want China Times Group’s acquisition of cable television services owned by China Network Systems. It also highlighted the sale of Next Media Group’s Taiwanese outlets to a consortium that includes individuals with significant corporate interests in China. A key figure in both deals is Want Want chairman Tsai Eng-meng (蔡衍明), who made his fortune in China.
Tsai, who has come under much criticism in the past year, issued an open letter in November to defend himself against claims that he is too pro-Beijing.
Tsai said he was a businessman who has been repeatedly entangled in the conflicts of Taiwanese politics.
He said he had not brought in new editorial personnel to the China Times Group after he took it over, because he wanted to maintain the ideals of the group’s founder, Yu Chi-chung (余紀忠), and honor the role the group had played in the development of Taiwan’s democracy.
He added that “some of the statements I made were carefully inspected, as if I was being placed under a microscope” and said that his ideas are now constantly censored by the public.
Tsai appears unwilling to recognize that his ownership of four newspapers, including the China Times, two television stations, one weekly magazine, three online news units and a cable TV channel provider has made him a major player in Taiwan’s small media market, and therefore what he says does carry considerable weight.
He can no longer claim exemption from media analysis or public criticism. It is that kind of monopolization that worries so many people, given the government’s apparent laissez-faire attitude toward such buyouts, along with its pro-China tilt.
Taiwan’s press freedom cannot and should not have to rely on Tsai’s uncertain goodwill — or the government’s ability to guard that freedom. This is why it is so important for average citizens to educate themselves about the issue and make their voice heard if such freedom is to be maintained.
To quote Puddington again on the Freedom in the World 2013: “Our findings point to the growing sophistication of modern authoritarians … They are flexible, they distort and abuse the legal framework, they are adept at the techniques of modern propaganda.”
In Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press 2012 report issued in May last year, Taiwan’s ranking improved marginally, moving up to 47 from the 48 achieved in 2011. However, that was still far down from the 43 accorded in the watchdog’s 2008 report. It will be interesting to see where Taiwan ends up when this year’s report is issued in early May.