A photograph of prominent US linguist and cultural critic Noam Chomsky holding a placard bearing the words “Anti-Media Monopoly” and “MIT” — the initials of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Chomsky works — has been circulating on the Internet and other media outlets.
Chomsky was later reported to have said later that he did not know that the accompanying Chinese text on the placard included the phrase “Say no to China’s black hands,” and that he hoped that the incident would not be interpreted as representing viewpoints beyond matters of media monopoly and freedom of the press on his part.
Based on this incident, some academics have expressed doubts about the campaign against media monopolization in Taiwan, asking whether it is anti-Chinese in nature and whether it has employed improper and manipulative methods.
As academics specializing in communications studies, we hope that any miscommunication that might have occurred can be cleared up with goodwill, understanding and respect.
It is reasonable to talk about whether an individual’s actions are appropriate.
For example, there has been a lot of discussion about whether Chen Wei-ting (陳為廷), a university student and founding member of the Youth Alliance Against Media Monsters, acted fittingly when he leveled accusations against Minister of Education Chiang Wei-ling (蔣偉寧) during a legislative committee meeting.
However, society should not lose sight of the background to these incidents, namely the question of what opposition to media monopolization is all about. It is therefore important to get back to the core issues of this movement.
Many people are concerned whether regulation of monopolies runs contrary to freedom of expression. At the same time, those who are concerned about monopolies are themselves motivated by the ideals of freedom and diversity. Governments in free societies have to take both these concerns into account in determining the right degree of regulation.
As defined by the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “a monopoly implies an exclusive possession of a market by a supplier of a product or a service for which there is no substitute. In this situation the supplier is able to determine the price of the product.”
Accordingly, advanced democratic countries generally have fair trade systems to make judgements about mergers or other actions that may lead to market monopolies.
This is more so with media markets because publishing and broadcasting have a considerable impact on the expression of truth and opinion that is necessary for the development of a free and democratic society. Countries around the world have established special regulations designed to prevent monopolies arising from excessive concentration of media ownership.
There are two ongoing cases involving the Want Want China Times Group’s plans to acquire cable television services and a big stake in the Next Media Group’s media assets in Taiwan.
The core issue of these cases is not any dispute about the Want Want Group’s opinions, but the question of whether these acquisitions would lead to an excessively high concentration of media ownership.
Other media groups also have issues regarding quality of expression and journalistic professionalism, but none of them involve such a high concentration of ownership through cross-media acquisitions and mergers.
More constructive discussion is needed, not just about whether these two cases would lead to excessive concentration of media ownership, but also about whether Taiwan should adopt a law to regulate and prevent such monopolies.
People should be asking how to stop media businesses from carrying out acquisitions and mergers that involve excessive cross-media consolidation or concentration of ownership. That is why the National Communications Commission has promised to propose legislation containing clearer rules about media consolidation next month.
All advanced democratic countries have clearer regulations about media concentration than Taiwan. Advances in digital convergence technology have prompted some countries to contemplate limited easing of regulation, but they have no intention of giving a totally free rein to media businesses.
Such countries all have regulations forbidding vertical and horizontal acquisitions and mergers that would lead to excessive concentration of ownership of the mass media outlets that are the biggest and most authoritative sources of news and information.
The regulations in force in various countries are too many and complicated to describe in detail here, but we can look at a few examples.
In Germany the authorities calculate total cross-media market share by means of weighting, stipulating that it cannot go above a certain limit.
The US has regulations concerning the number of licenses and market share held in different media sectors, to the effect that in principle proprietors are not allowed to simultaneously own more than two national newspapers or television stations in any one regional market.
The UK has the 20-20 rule, which prohibits the proprietor of national newspapers with a share of 20 percent or more of the national market from holding more than a 20 percent share in a commercial television company.
These countries also conduct very thorough and careful inspection of all key documents and procedures, including journalistic quality, safeguards for diversity of opinions, professional autonomy and procedures for hearings.
If “anti-China” concerns are a matter of putting people’s opinions on trial, that is not a good thing, but if they have to do with professional autonomy and national interest, China’s influence is an issue that cannot be evaded.
However, there is no necessary connection between this and opposition to media monopoly.
Free societies like the UK, US and Germany do not face a “China factor,” but they all have their respective regulations regarding the concentration of media ownership and procedures for examining such cases.
The incident last summer in which some of the Want Want Group’s media outlets accused Academia Sinica associate research fellow Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌) of paying students to attend a protest against the group’s acquisition of cable television services owned by China Network Systems aroused public indignation and street protests, but there was no “China factor” involved.
The core issue under dispute in the cross-media acquisition and merger cases for the nation is the concentration of media ownership and control.
This is the central issue, and it needs to be confronted fair and square, without the focus being blurred.
Flora Chang and Lin Lih-yun are professors at National Taiwan University’s Graduate Institute of Journalism.
Translated by Julian Clegg