Since its launch in Taiwan during the administration of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), the Apple Daily’s role has changed, yet stayed the same. It excelled at attacking the Democratic Progressive Party, but now, with the party still struggling to find its feet and Chen locked up indefinitely, the newspaper has defied the pro-China media’s endless program of Chen-bashing. Instead, it has taken national and local Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) governments to task.
Senior members of the KMT are beginning to run out of patience with the newspaper, it seems.
The Taipei City Government, which is controlled by the KMT, fined the newspaper NT$500,000 (US$15,500) on Wednesday and another NT$500,000 on Thursday night, the latter apparently for insubordination as much as any formal transgression. The original offense was publishing animated videos — mostly of crime reconstructions — online and making these sometimes explicit and sensational videos available for download to cellphones.
It’s one thing for a government to lecture media outlets on morality and propriety, but compelling schools to discontinue subscriptions and issuing heavy fines for media presentations not contained in a print version — and which are vaguely covered by the law — is another matter entirely.
For some, the news that the Apple Daily has subscribers among elementary, middle and high schools will come as a shock. Regardless of regulatory matters, there is no denying that the newspaper’s coverage of social aberration is often lurid and distressing, particularly its use of large, bloody photographs and images of corpses. Compared with these, the largely redundant blow-by-blow graphics that accompany stories of robberies and assault seem innocuous.
Even so, the knee-jerk response by regulatory authorities — both central and regional — to challenging or inaccurate media content has been raised a notch here, and the newspaper has fought back, accusing the government of martial law-style tactics, a none-too-subtle reference to the KMT’s seedy past.
Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) has been at the forefront of the attack on the Apple Daily, and his chest-thumping recalls the speed with which he recently formed a bizarre “voluntary” association of restaurants and other outlets that pledged not to sell US beef on pain of city government fines.
For him to noisily ban the Apple Daily from schools for providing cellphone download codes for News-in-Motion clips in its print edition, however, is preposterous given that many editions of the newspaper — and those of some of its competitors — shouldn’t be in the hands of children at all. Now, with all the free publicity, every curious child in the school system will get the codes from the local convenience store’s newspaper rack without buying anything.
Hau is trying to steer media outlets away from his litany of administrative and political problems by taking just as sensationalist a line as the media outlets he decries. The Wenshan-Neihu MRT line, the shuttered Maokong Gondola, his poor relationship with President (and now party boss) Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), a generally mediocre list of “achievements” — all this will be put further inside the paper, but only for now.
As in Hong Kong, Apple Daily boss Jimmy Lai (黎智英) is more of a threat to Taiwan’s governments than they are to him. This man has stared down far more formidable opponents in Beijing and lived to tell. If KMT figureheads wish to risk packaging a political fight with Lai as a morality crusade, they will have to go about their business with a little more intelligence and tact — and without politicizing a law that has not kept up with new technology.
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