In the weeks since the National Communications Commission (NCC) said that it would hold an administrative hearing today on CTi News’ application to renew its operating license, debate over its license has turned the renewal process from an administrative procedure to a political issue that could divide the nation in the months to come.
Some pro-independence groups have urged the commission not to renew the license, saying CTi News has not kept the promises it had made when it renewed its license in 2014.
They accused the channel of accepting funding from China, turning itself into a propaganda machine for pro-Beijing politicians and abusing the freedom of the press.
Supporters in the pan-blue camp see the hearing as part of a bid by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government to close the channel, one of the few in the nation that gives voice to supporters of unification with China.
They have accused the commission of suppressing the freedom of the press, and some of its members of being biased against the channel.
The NCC on Thursday issued three statements urging the public to give commissioners room to review the case.
Asked why the commission was planning to hold its first-ever administrative hearing for a channel’s license renewal application, the commission’s spokesperson, Vice Chairman Wong Po-tsung (翁柏宗), on Sept. 23 said that it wanted to ensure “the procedures that it follows to review the case are complete,” adding that administrative hearings had been held in other cases.
Supporters have questioned if the application can be reviewed without preconceptions, as two of the three commissioners who are to preside over today’s hearing today — Lin Lih-yun (林麗雲) and Wang Wei-ching (王維菁) — were vocal opponents of Want Want China Times Media Group’s bid to acquire China Network Systems (CTS), the nation’s second-largest multiple system’s operator, and Lin was a key player in the movement against media monopolization in 2012 and in 2013.
A Presidential Office document leaked in May suggested that then-acting NCC chairman Chen Yaw-shyang (陳耀祥) — who later became chairman — strictly followed the Executive Yuan’s instructions, and that two experts generally aligning themselves with the pan-green camp’s agenda — widely believed to be Lin and Wang — “can be trusted to handle problems caused by CTi News.”
The Presidential Office said the document’s contents had been altered by hackers.
In April last year, then-NCC chairwoman Nicole Chan (詹婷怡) resigned following Executive Yuan criticism that the commission had failed to halt CTi News from spreading disinformation during the campaigns for the 2018 nine-in-one local elections that appeared to favor then-Kaohsiung mayoral candidate Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).
A DPP lawmaker also blamed Chan for the party’s losses in those elections.
The channel has been fined a total of NT$10.73 million (US$371,062 at the current exchange rate) from 2014 to this year for contravening media regulations, including NT$5.03 million last year and NT$5 million this year, NCC data showed.
Of this year’s fines, NT$3.4 million were given for its failure to abide by the fact-verification principle stipulated in the Satellite Broadcasting Act (衛星廣播電視法) in connection with election-related content critical of the DPP administration between March 28 and Nov. 29, 2018.
The lengthy list of fines would be one of the factors the commissioners would review, the NCC said.
A retired NCC official, who asked to remain anonymous, said it had become common practice for the NCC to hold an administration hearing on major controversial cases since Chan was in office.
The NCC had consulted outside experts before reviewing the channel’s renewal application in 2014, with the majority of the experts recommending that the application be rejected, he said.
NCC commissioners at the time said the government should not rashly shut down any news channel and set a list of conditions that CTi News had to agree to to secure its license renewal, he said.
The channel was also told that the NCC would use those conditions as criteria in future performance reviews and license renewals.
The four main conditions are holding regular educational training for employees, inviting civic group representatives as well as experts from a variety of disciplines to become members of its ethics committee, ensuring that the vacancy for a full-time news editor be filled as soon as possible and giving the commission a specific timeline on when it would recruit a qualified, independent ombudsman to oversee its operations.
CTi News was also told it should enforce the newsroom ethics guideline that it set for itself by meeting the following requirements: that the ombudsman should oversee the channel’s operation when it reports on news involving itself; it should make its ethical guidelines public; and its ethics committee should meet periodically to review alleged infractions and how the channel has addressed viewers’ complaints about its news stories.
The CTi News’ editors and the ombudsman were also to work together to control the channel’s news quality and ensure that information is presented in a just, precise, objective, neutral and diverse manner.
The channel did not have an independent ombudsman until July 1 last year, after it was fined NT$500,000 for failing to fulfill the conditions set in 2014.
The anonymous official said CTi News’ representatives told external experts that they would sign an agreement on newsroom ethical guidelines with its news department, including a promise that shareholders and management would not intervene in the news department coverage.
“NCC commissioners should specifically scrutinize if CTi News has strictly followed the newsroom ethical guidelines that it promised to do six years ago, apart from the four main conditions,” he said.
One of the outside experts, Weber Lai (賴祥蔚), a professor in National Taiwan University of Arts’s Department of Radio and Television, said the NCC should stipulate specific standards to help it determine if a channel should be allowed to renew its license, such as how much it has been fined, or applications by CTi News and others could easily turn into a thorny political issue.
Lin and Wang have a good reputation in academia, and they are not likely to risk their reputations and academic careers by not following the regulations, Lai said.
The NCC invited Want Want China Times Group founder Tsai Eng-meng (蔡衍明) to attend today’s hearing, as he is also chairman of San Want Holding, CTi News’ largest shareholder.
When the NCC in 2012 allowed the group to purchase CTS on the condition that Tsai must completely dissociate himself from CTi News, he eventually withdrew from the deal in 2013 to be able to retain ownership of the cable channel.
He has a track record of launching attacks against the NCC and anti-media monopoly advocates through the media outlets he owns.
After Want Want succeeded in acquiring the China Times Group in 2009, the group’s Chinese-language China Times newspaper placed a half-page advertisement from CTi News and China Television Co on their front pages with mugshot-type photographs of three NCC commissioners allegedly hostile to Want Want’s takeover of the China Times Group.
The ads said that the condition imposed on Want Want should be applied to all broadcasting media, not just the two TV stations.
The three commissioners in 2011 recused themselves from the review of the Want Want-CNS deal, while the NCC voted unanimously to condemn Want Want for using media outlets to publish allegations against its commissioners and pressure them.
After the NCC repeatedly fined CTi News earlier this year for what it said was disinformation favorable to Han, the channel sent reporters to question NCC officials at the commission’s weekly news conferences about whether the channel was being targeted because of its coverage of Han.
Since Oct. 14, the China Times has been providing special coverage of channel 52 (CTi News’ number) renewal application, with politicians and pundits criticizing the NCC and backing the channel.
Meanwhile, the NCC said it hopes to learn through the hearing if renewing CTi News’ license would create national security issues, given Tsai’s business stakes in China and his unabashedly pro-Beijing stance.
Tsai’s Want Want China Holdings last year was reported to have received about NT$2.8 billion in subsidies from the Chinese government in 2017 and 2018, although the corporation denied the funding was used to support a disinformation campaign by its media group.
The China Times last year sued the London-based Financial Times after the newspaper reported it took orders about its coverage on a daily basis from China’s Taiwan Affairs Office.
Other media outlets are keeping a close eye on the CTi News case for an indication of how the government might handle media outlets whose owners have business operations in China, and who might take over channel 52 if CTi News is taken off the air.
Global News and soon-to-be-established Mirror TV are reportedly pursuing the channel’s site, as it is part of the cable TV block from channels No. 49 to No. 58.
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