By Ketty W. Chen.

During the past winter break, a group of university students traveled around Taiwan in the back of a small, old pickup truck, embarking on what they ultimately named the “To the End of the World and back Tour” (一車走天涯串聯行動). The tour covered ten major cities from Keelung to Pingtung. The students stopped in front of train stations, night markets and temples and stood on a Taiwan Beer case (instead of a soapbox) using a megaphone to address the gathering crowd on what they perceived as the dangers of media monopoly and the deteriorating quality of democracy in Taiwan.

The truck tour was the last of a series of activities and protests against media monopolization in Taiwan since last year. Starting last July, six protests were held in front of the CtiTV station building, the Want Want China Times Group, the National Communications Commission, the Executive Yuan, the Fair Trade Commission and the Legislative Yuan, all to demand appropriate government agencies and institutions fulfill their obligations to protect Taiwan’s media diversity and maintain the quality of the media.

The largest protest, in September, drew more than ten thousand to the streets of Taipei. It was the largest protest involving mostly youths, (often referred to as “The Strawberry Generation/Tribe” for their post-martial law birth-date, pleasant physical appearance and care-free attitude), since the Wild Lily Student Movement in the early 1990’s.  University professors also took part in the protest against monopolization of the media. Last December, professors from seventeen universities offered free classes for three weeks to students interested in learning about the dangers of a media monopoly to a democratic society, allowing business conglomerates to determine which news to print and broadcast.

More specifically, young Taiwanese, journalists, academics and activists are deeply concerned by the Want Want China Times Group’s plan to acquire the China Network System (CNS)  and the NTD$ 17.5 billion (USD$600 million) deal to sell the Next Media Group to two consortia of powerful Taiwanese businessmen with large financial stakes and business operations in mainland China. The young protesters, mostly university students, all of whom grew up in a democratic Taiwan, saw the aggressive media acquisitions by business conglomerates and the possible effects this might have on Taiwan’s democracy as grounds for major concern.

In particular, they objected to the influence of Tsai Eng-meng, the chairman of the Want Want China Times group, due to his very public pro-China rhetoric and political stance. A self-made business tycoon, Tsai began building his business empire in 1976, when he took over his father’s canned fish company, Yilan Foods Industrial Co. In the 1980’s, Tsai collaborated with Japan’s Iwatsuka Confectionery Company Limited to make rice crackers, and became the first successful brand of its kind in Taiwan. Tsai’s Want Want Senbei rice cracker and the successful extension of business ventures to China made him the richest man in Taiwan according to the Forbes magazine. In 2008, Tsai purchased the China Times Group, which included print media (the China Times, Commercial Times, China Times Weekly) and TV stations (CtiTV and China Television (CTV) networks).

Since Tsai’s purchase of China Times, he has been accused of interfering in editorial matters, such as firing a China Times newspaper editor who published an article labeling China’s top negotiator on Taiwan, the Chairman of Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS), Chen Yun-lin as “third rate”.  Tsai’s critics are even more troubled by Tsai’s consistent echoing of Beijing’s ‘party line’. In an interview with the Washington Post, Tsai said he couldn’t wait to see Taiwan unify with China, while claiming reports on the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 were not true, because “not that many people died”.  Moreover, Want Want Holding’s internal newsletter  reported that after Tsai acquired the China Times Group in 2008, he met with Wang Yi, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office minister, and elucidated that the goal of his procurement of the China Times Group was “to use the power of the media to further cross-Strait relations”.

In 2011, Tsai’s intention to acquire China Network Systems (CNS), one of Taiwan’s largest multiple system operators with 11 cable TV services, sparked objections from more than 800 academics, 100 civic groups and prompted the resignation of three members of the National Communications Commission, as the government sought to grant permission to Tsai’s venture. Tsai pushed his endeavor even further last year, by signing a buyout agreement to purchase Next Media Group. According to the Association of Taiwan Journalists (ATJ), if the Want Want China Times Group acquires the print media section of Next Media, it would give the Group a 46 percent market share, effectively making it a media monopoly. The Youth Alliance Against Media Monsters, a watchdog and activist group comprised of mainly undergraduate and graduate students, deemed the hypothetical monopoly “The Media Monster” of Taiwan. Both media acquisition deals are still under review, with the latest NCC ruling being that Want Want China Times Group has not met the three conditions it set last year for the group’s acquisition of the cable TV services operated by CNS.

Media freedom and diversity have always been a struggle for the Taiwanese, from the Japanese colonial era through 38 years of Martial Law under the Nationalist Chinese Party (KMT) rule, to issues continuing through the democratic era. Under Japanese rule, Taiwan Minbao (台灣民報) struggled to stay in publication with the permission, and under the watchful eyes, of the colonial government, with the precondition that a Japanese edition be printed as well. Taiwan Minbao served as the forum for various social movements in Taiwan, ranging from farmers and workers rights to feminist movement.  Minbao was banned on March 8, 1947, soon after the 228 Massacre and the disappearance and subsequent murder of its president, Lin Mao-sheng (林茂生).  After the Nationalist Chinese government declared martial law on Taiwan, publications such as the New Frontier (前鋒), New Taiwan (新台灣), New Knowledge(新知識), The Political and Economic News (政經報) and the Taiwan Review (台灣評論) survived between a few months to a year. Lei Chen’s Free China (自由中國) in the 1950s, and the subsequent publications of the Formosa Magazine (美麗島雜誌) and The Eighties (八十年代) in the 1970s and 80s, all symbolized the Taiwan’s administrator’s desire to control political and social rhetoric and to suppress opposition views and ideologies.

Taiwan has been a democratic polity for more than two decades, with regularly held free elections, universal suffrage, multiparty competition and the alternation of political power. However, Taiwan now faces a new strand of struggle for media freedom. The monster this time, as the Alliance of Youth against Media Monsters identified, is not a colonial or authoritarian regime, but business conglomerates with great financial stakes and operations in the country across the Taiwan Strait that claims Taiwan as an inseparable part of its territory. With the majority of the population in Taiwan desiring separation from China, mass media have become an essential tool for China to improve its image with the Taiwanese people and to promote its unification policy through Taiwanese business leaders.

The Anti-Media Monopoly movement in Taiwan is showing no signs of slowing down. The National Communications Commission released a draft of Broadcasting Media Monopolization Prevention and Diversity Preservation Act (廣播電視壟斷防制與多元維護法), also known as the “media anti-monopolization act”, last week.  Members of the Legislative Yuan are now mulling over amendments to the Radio and Television Act (廣播電視法), the Satellite Broadcasting Act (衛星廣播電視法) and the Cable Television Act (有線電視法) for a better regulatory framework to deal with media acquisitions and to prevent media monopolization.

The issue of media and press freedom in Taiwan is multifaceted with interlocking political and social implications on social movements, identity, nationalism and democratic quality. More social and political activities regarding freedom of media are expected to manifest themselves in the future. So, as one popular television narrator in Taiwan often says, “Let us continue with our observations (讓我們繼續看下去)…”

Dr. Ketty W. Chen is a Visiting Scholar at the National Taiwan University, Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences. Prior to arriving Taiwan, she taught at the Department of Behavioral and Social Sciences at Collin College in Plano, Texas. Follow her on Twitter @HelloKetty1998.