The media of Taiwan, the small island nation near China’s southern coast, was ranked second freest in Asia right after Japan in 2011. But it has for years faced threats to its media independence as the Chinese communist regime uses its own media companies, or those it sponsors, to make inroads into Taiwanese public opinion, and the current government in some cases simply stands by.
Under the current Nationalist government of Taiwan, led by Ma Ying-jeou since 2008, relations between Taipei and Beijing have gotten increasingly warmer. Experts say Ma’s conciliatory policies have had the unintended consequence of giving the Chinese regime a greater opportunity to infiltrate Taiwan’s media.
Taiwanese businessman Tsai Eng-meng, chairman of the Want Want China Times Group, is cited by critics as the perfect example of the encroachment of the Chinese regime.
According to Forbes magazine, Tsai was Taiwan’s richest man in 2012: he owns a food and beverage giant in China, with $2.9 billion in revenues. In his parallel career as a media tycoon, he owns newspapers, magazines, television stations, and most recently a cable network in Taiwan.
Tsai is well known for his support for the Chinese regime, and the support he receives in kind. In an interview with The Washington Post, Tsai suggested that no one actually died during the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, when it is suspected that thousands of students were mowed down with machine gun fire and crushed by tanks.
He is also thought to have received some quiet regulatory help by the Ma government. On July 25 the National Communications Commission (NCC) approved the Want Want China Times Group’s acquisition of China Network Systems, the island’s second largest cable television provider.
According to the International Federation of Journalists, that expansion meant that Tsai’s company would be able to control a third of Taiwan’s media, including 23 percent of all cable TV subscribers.
The Federation also said, “Tsai’s media companies have already accepted advertising revenue from the Mainland without notifying its readers,” and pointed out Tsai “indirectly admitted that the group had made editorial compromises.”
Though the NCC imposed strict conditions on the deal that Want Want China Times must fulfill, the concerns about Tsai’s political stance and his influence over Taiwan’s media landscape has grown for many journalists and critics.
“People are extremely uncomfortable to the point of being angry at him, knowing that he has a pro-China stance and that he has publicly advocated that Taiwan be part of China,” said Ketty Chen, a political scientist at National Taiwan University, in an interview with The Financial Times.
“That’s the main reason why people don’t want him to become the Rupert Murdoch of Taiwan,” Chen added.
Media coverage on Tsai-controlled outlets are already heavily positive on China’s economic growth, and take it easy on reporting about human rights abuses in the communist country, according to Kuang Chung-hsiang, a professor at National Chung Cheng University, who spoke to The Associated Press.
The disappearance of negative China reports no doubt has something to do with TV stations’ craving for access to the mainland market.
— Kuang Chung-hsiang, a professor at Taiwan’s National Chung Cheng University
“The Chinese don’t really have to work on the Taiwanese media, but rather let commercial interests do the job,” Kuang said. “The disappearance of negative China reports no doubt has something to do with TV stations’ craving for access to the mainland market.”
In early September nearly 10,000 students and journalists protested outside the headquarters of Tsai’s Want Want China Times Group, demanding that he resign. It was dubbed the largest protest related to media in Taiwanese history.
In late September media scholars urged the National Communications Commission to promptly formulate temporary rules to regulate cross-media ownership in response to public concern over monopolization of the media, the Taipei Times reported.
The International Federation of Journalists has made similar demands.
Another recent change in media ownership has friends of press freedom for Taiwan concerned. The Hong Kong-based Jimmy Lai, another media mogul who owns Next Media, recently announced plans to sell its Taiwanese news business, including both print and television companies, for $600 million, to Jeffrey Koo Jr. of Chinatrust Financial.
“Taiwan loses an independent media that can be a watchdog of the government and gets another one controlled by a pro-China business family,” Kuang Chung-Hsiang, told Businessweek.
A study done in March by the Foundation for the Advancement of Media Excellence found the Chinese regime had paid for hundreds of articles in Taiwan’s five largest dailies in advance of the January presidential elections.
Global Post quoted National Taiwan University journalism lecturer Chang Chin-hua as saying, “This cannot be tolerated. It goes against professionalism and journalism ethics. It cheats the readers, who don’t know what to believe. It destroys the very function of news and readership trust. And it’s also a national security problem.”
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