HK media mogul accuses Taiwan of reining in press
Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai (黎智英) yesterday accused the Taiwanese government of increasingly seeking to control the media and “failing” to provide ...
Taiwan's Less-Free Media
The government of President Ma Ying-jeou is tigh
By JIMMY LAI
In China, government assaults on free expression regularly generate attention around the world. Less so in other parts of Asia, alas. So when Taiwan's telecommunications and broadcasting regulator rejected my company's application for new cable TV licenses multiple times in the last year, most recently last month, the news went almost unnoticed outside Taiwan.
We are not the only media company affected; the government of President Ma Ying-jeou has undertaken several initiatives to restrain the previously vibrant Taiwanese press. As the majority owner of Next Media, I have a strong vested interest in this particular case. However, I believe that anyone who values the free flow of information—not to mention the future of a free Taiwan—should be concerned.
In delivering its decision, Taiwan's National Communications Commission cited concerns that we might not be able to satisfy various regulations, and that we might try to circumvent existing program-rating restrictions. Most ominously of all, the NCC said it could not be sure that Next Media would "fulfill its social responsibilies as a mass media operator." These are all shockingly subjective rationales. Instead of dealing with the facts and merits of our application, the NCC is punishing us on the basis of what we might do.
And Next Media is not some tiny, fly-by-night startup. According to Nielsen, we are the publishers of the top newspapers and magazines in Hong Kong and Taiwan, along with the top news website in Hong Kong. In Taiwan alone, we have invested nearly $120 million into studios and equipment for our television launch. In so doing, we have created nearly 1,200 jobs for the Taiwanese people, and increased their options for news and entertainment.
You wouldn't know that from the way the government described our case. When NCC Chairwoman Su Heng appeared before Taiwan's Legislative Yuan in November, she asserted that there was too much overlap in senior management between Next TV and Apple Daily newspaper. If the chairwoman had looked into the facts contained in the Next TV application, she would know that of the eight department heads at Next TV, only one has prior experience working at Apple Daily.Apple Daily and Next Magazine (another of our print titles) figured prominently in another misleading assertion. Ms. Su complained that these two publications are "often the subject of litigation." What Ms. Su neglected to mention is that, of the more than 200 lawsuits generated by our investigative reports over the past three years, Apple and Next Daily have lost only three of these cases.
She also forgot to mention that the subjects of these investigative reports are usually corrupt government officials or business leaders not pleased with a free press looking into their activities. When we expose the misdeeds of such people, we regard it as a public service, fulfilling one of the highest responsibilities of a free press.
Nor has the government stopped with Next TV. Last week, the NCC revoked the entertainment channel license of another broadcaster, ERA TV, sparking protest from some lawmakers.
In an even more worrying development, the Taiwanese legislature is now considering a bill that would ban news outlets from "describing or illustrating violence, bloodshed, pornographic sexuality, or lewdness in detail." The language containing this provision is part of a group of amendments being pushed by an NGO called the Child Welfare League Foundation, as well as by the Taiwanese government's Child Welfare Bureau.
The goal, to shield children from violent or graphic content, is a laudable one. But in practice, this law would have a chilling effect on reporting for children and adults alike. So vague is the wording, it has the potential to impact the reporting of every crime, every accident—not to mention every embarrassing misadventure by a Taiwanese politician.
Here it helps to remember that though the NCC is an ostensibly "neutral" body, its members are nonetheless nominated in proportion to the number of seats of political parties held in the legislature. Today the KMT has an overwhelming majority in Taiwan's legislature and holds the presidency. So one has to wonder whether the quality of reporting in Taiwan is really the driving concern here. The NCC would not undertake actions that endanger press freedom and the reputation of Taiwan if President Ma and the ruling KMT did not back their actions.
As for the government, it has already drawn fire from the National Press Council for "embedded marketing." This is the practice by which the government pays for propaganda articles to appear as news reports in newspapers and on television. Given that the government is one of the biggest media buyers in Taiwan, the press council has asked the government to desist, seeing this as a tool to have the news reflect its own message.
Viewed in isolation, each of these developments might be written off as misguided, if well-intentioned, efforts. Taken as a whole, however, they look more like a program to increase government control over the media. Such developments help explain why for two years in a row the independent watchdog Freedom House has downgraded Taiwan's ranking for press freedom.
It is hardly surprising that Taiwan's leaders do not always appreciate critical and independent reporting. But the way a government treats its media critics is the true test of whether it truly supports a free press. By that standard, Taiwan is failing.
Mr. Lai is the founder and chairman of Next Media.