Anti-media monopoly explained

By Ming-Yeh T. Rawnsley 蔡明燁  / 

Mon, Feb 04, 2013 - Page 8

As the anti-media monopoly movement gathers momentum in Taiwan and overseas, it is important to have a clearer understanding of what it is about. For example, when Noam Chomsky expressed his support for the anti-media monopoly campaign in Taiwan, he agreed to be photographed with a campaign poster. However, Chomsky later claimed that he did not realize that the poster in his hands included a slogan, “anti-hidden Chinese interference” (拒絕中國黑手).

The intention of this article is threefold: First, it aims to clarify the various issues associated with the movement. While they are interrelated, these issues focus on different problems. Second, it will offer a broad overview of why, when and how these issues came under the same campaign umbrella and finally, it will reflect on the implications of the anti-media monopoly movement for media reform in the nation.

The campaigners originally championed three issues: anti-media monopoly, anti-Chinese interference (the “China factor,” which refers to Taiwanese businesspeople with economic interests China) and safeguarding press freedom.

Recently, two additional issues have been added: strengthening public service broadcasting and strengthening labor unions within the media industry.

The movement can be traced to 2008 when the China Times Group was purchased by Want Want Holdings, one of the largest food manufacturing companies in Asia, with extensive business interests in the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

The Want Want China Times Media Group soon became a significant media enterprise in Taiwan, with several print and electronic outlets including the Chinese-language newspaper China Times, terrestrial television station China Television Co (CTV) and its digital channels, cable television CtiTV, and, in 2011, China Network Systems, Taiwan’s second-largest cable TV provider.

As media ownership came into the spotlight, the anti-media monopoly campaign began to attract attention.

Want Want Group chairman Tsai Eng-meng (蔡衍明) is highly controversial because he has allegedly interfered in the media under his control. For example, the editorial line of the China Times skewed toward support for a particular kind of Chinese state corporatism. It validates the PRC party-state and the rhetoric of national economic development. It also supports the parallel efforts of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government to align its policies with those of China.

Tsai was involved in several high-profile disputes, including with an exiled student leader of the 1989 pro-democracy movement in China, Wang Dan (王丹), regarding Tsai’s comments on the Tiananmen Square incident during an interview with the Washington Post. Moreover, the editor-in-chief of China Times, Hsia Chen (夏珍), was removed because the wording of a headline about former chairman of China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits Chen Yunlin (陳雲林) was considered “disrespectful” by Tsai.

Tsai’s blatant disregard of press freedom and the way his business interests in China have explicitly and implicitly influenced the operations of his media outlets in Taiwan has caused much concern among social elites.

The Chinese-language Next Magazine was launched in Taiwan in 2001 followed by Apple Daily in 2003. They were owned by Hong Kong media tycoon, Jimmy Lai (黎智英), and operate by the principles of sensationalism. However, because they also conduct vigorous investigative journalism and insist on political independence, they quickly became one of the best-selling news magazines and newspapers in Taiwan.

In 2009, Lai launched Next-TV, which pursues similar principles to Next Magazine and Apple Daily. The National Communications Commission (NCC) rejected its application for a cable television license and Next-TV can only deliver its programming via the Internet.

It is reported that Next-TV has suffered serious financial losses since 2009. Rumors began circulating early last year that Lai had decided to sell Next-TV, which triggered a series of complex business discussions that resulted in Lai agreeing to sell not only Next-TV, but also the more profitable Next Magazine and Apple Daily.

According to industry insiders, Tsai was among the first to express an interest in taking over Next Media, but Lai refused. Nevertheless, when Lai accepted an offer made by the China Trust Charity Foundation and Formosa Plastics group, it turned out that the Want Want China Times Media Group would become one of the major shareholders.

The transaction is to be completed in two stages. The first deal is regarding the print media outlets, Next Magazine and Apple Daily, and the proposed shareholders will be Formosa Plastics (34 percent), Want Want China Times Group (32 percent), China Trust (20 percent) and Lung Yen Life Service (14 percent). The second stage concerns the transaction of Next-TV, and the potential shareholders will be Formosa Plastics (34 percent), Taiwan Fire and Marine Insurance (32 percent), China Trust (20 percent) and Lung Yen Life Service (14 percent).

The deal is currently under review by the Fair Trade Commission because the remit of the NCC does not extend beyond broadcasting and telecommunications. If and when the transactions are approved, the most dominant media empire in the nation will be formed, and Tsai could become the most powerful individual in the media industry because, in addition to the media outlets owned by the Want Want China Times Media Group, China Trust and Formosa Plastics have media companies too, including ETTV, ONTV, rights to several foreign channels and cable TV distribution networks.

Several policy weaknesses regarding the media sector and press freedom in Taiwan are shown because of the Next Media deal. There are no sufficient regulations to prevent media monopoly; there is a lack of consideration of cross-media ownership among media regulators; and when discussing press freedom, one must recognize that commercial pressure is often just as damaging as political interference.

Media academics in Taiwan have said that the anti-media monopoly movement should look beyond one individual, or a single business negotiation and take a broader and more long-term view in order to reform the nation’s media.

Therefore, two further aims were added to the anti-media monopoly campaign: To strengthen public service broadcasting to curtail further commercialization of the media and to strengthen the regulations of establishing labor unions in the media industry so that professionals will be empowered and can stand up to their bosses if and when necessary.

Presently all companies in Taiwan are legally supposed to establish unions. However, as there is no penalty to the company if there is not a union, most private companies do not bother. Since most media companies in Taiwan are privately owned, few labor unions exist within the sector. Apple Daily and Next Magazine have now established labor unions in an attempt to continue to safeguard editorial independence and the interest of the workforce during and after the sale of Next Media outlets.

This is a positive development which should become the norm, not an exception.

If the media liberalization of the 1980s is seen as the nation’s first wave of democratization, the anti-media monopoly movement can be seen as the second. This has coincided with a swell of activity from a range of civil society movements, the most vocal of which has questioned the KMT government’s handling of the economy.

The first wave of media liberalization was part of the political transition in Taiwan. When martial law was lifted in 1987, attention was focused on further political and social democratization while media liberalization ended with the commercialization of the industry.

However, media commercialization does not equate press freedom or the real liberalization of the media. The second wave of media democratization will pick up where the first wave left off, and hopefully establish a better, fairer media environment that the nation deserves.

Ming-Yeh T. Rawnsley is research fellow at the Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds. She is also a board member of the European Association of Taiwan Studies.