How quickly the proverbial frog is being cooked. Less than three months ago, thousands of young Taiwanese and representatives of media organizations gathered to protest against the acquisition by Want Want China Times Group of cable TV services run by China Network Systems, fearing that such a purchase — since then conditionally approved — would create a “media monster.”
This week, Want Want Group is not only appealing the conditions set by the government, but is on the brink, along with two other corporate giants, of acquiring Next Media Group’s outlets in Taiwan, including the staunchly independent Apple Daily and Next Magazine, sparking a new round of protests over the past two days.
With a decision expected later this week, one of the few remaining neutral media organizations in Taiwan could be swallowed up by a triumvirate composed of the China-friendly Want Want China Times Group, Formosa Plastics Group and the Chinatrust Charity Foundation. All three have important business operations in authoritarian China.
The main danger of media monopolization is not that Taiwanese will be “brainwashed,” but that journalists and editorialists will feel compelled to avoid certain controversial subjects for the financial benefit of their employers.
The argument has been made that in the electronic age, traditional media have lost some of their prestige as a “fourth estate” scrutinizing people in positions of authority. As the recent revolutions in northern Africa have shown, blogs, instant messaging and other online media now play a crucial role in mobilizing the masses. However, the fact remains that the masses still do not get the press passes needed to attend important events — journalists do, and it will be a while yet before bloggers, no matter how good they are, acquire the legitimacy and access that come with working for recognized media organizations.
As a wealthy few take control of the local media, and as their reliance on China continues to grow, Taiwan could someday find itself in a situation where most journalists covering important events — say, negotiations on future cross-strait agreements — come from those few media organizations whose owners have a stake in not alienating Beijing or the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). Reporters who do not self-censor, or who take an undue interest in politics, would risk their careers. As a result, the population would be denied information that would now be the privilege of an elite few, whose interests may not necessarily coincide with those of the majority.
In the years leading up to Japan’s decision to ally with Nazi Germany in World War II, the Japanese never fully understood the extent of Adolf Hitler’s apocalyptic vision. Perhaps, had the Japanese translator of Mein Kampf not edited out Hitler’s references to Japanese as part of the Untermenschen, or “subhumans,” they might have made a different choice.
The current situation places greater responsibility on the few remaining media that can lay claim to independence, as well as the foreign news outlets that continue to operate in Taiwan. Worryingly, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration has at times been inimical to foreign reporters, either accusing them of not fully understanding the situation because they are foreigners, or in more extreme instances, threatening them with expulsion for exposing damaging information.
With domestic media forced into submission by powerful commercial interests and a foreign press that is constantly excluded, one wonders who is left to ensure Taiwan’s story continues to be told fully and with honesty.
The students and their supporters who braved the scorching heat of September and the damp coldness of November for the sake of a free media environment have already said they will not give up and intend to resume their protest tomorrow to ask that government agencies in charge of monitoring the media do the right thing. Many of them are too young to know what it is like to live in an unfree media environment, but have enough imagination to know they don’t want that for their future.