by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Solomon203/WikiCommons/CC

AFTER WEEKS of speculation, the National Communication Commission (NCC) ruled today that it would not be renewing the license of television broadcaster CtiTV.  One expects the ruling to lead to resistance from the KMT, as well as accusations against the Tsai administration that it is violating freedoms of press in Taiwan from the pan-Blue camp.

CtiTV is owned by Tsai Eng-meng’s Want Want Group. Although the Want Want Group began in foodstuffs, the Want Want Group currently has holdings in media companies including CtiTV, CTV, and the China Times.

Facebook post by CtiTV after the ruling

In particular, part of what is controversial regarding the Want Want Group is the fact that Tsai, one of Taiwan’s richest men, has made no secret of that his interest in acquiring media companies was to promote pro-unification views in Taiwan. As a result, from 2011 to 2014, the “Anti-Media Monopoly Movement” took place, calling on regulators to prevent Tsai from achieving “media monopoly” by continually buying up media outlets in order to promote pro-China views. Many of the key leaders of the 2014 Sunflower Movement originally cut their teeth as protest leaders in the Anti-Media Monopoly Movement.

In the years since, Want Want Group-owned companies have found themselves under scrutiny numerous times for acting as a platform for the dissemination aimed at benefiting the KMT and the pan-Blue camp, and for directly taking orders from the Chinese government.

A report by the Financial Times in July 2019 stated that the Want Want Group, CTV, and CtiTV were directly seeking approval from China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) before running stories. Although the TAO did not interfere in all stories, the TAO was allowed to have a say in the placement of articles and their angle.

In April 2019, the Apple Daily also reported that the Want Want Group received over 477 million Chinese yuan—just over 2 billion NTD—from the Chinese government between 2017 and 2018. After this report, the Want Want Group sought to sue the Apple Daily, as well as the Central News Agency, which also reported on Apple’s scoop, to silence them.

In May 2019, over 70 representatives from Taiwanese media organizations visited Beijing for an event co-organized by the Beijing Newspaper Group and the Want Want Group. The event focused a great deal on cross-strait relations, with participants urged to aid the political unification of Taiwan and China, and involved participant organizations signing a cooperation agreement.

Among the Taiwanese participants in the event were high-ranking staff from some of Taiwan’s largest media organizations, including Fan Ling-jia, the editor-in-chief of the United Daily News, Huang Qing-long, the president of the Want Daily, Wang Feng, president of the China Times, Chen Hong-jin, chair of the Taiwan Broadcasting Association, Ding Wen-qi, chair of the Taiwan Radio and Television Program Association, and Qiu Jia-yu, the chair of CTV. Tsai Eng-meng and former Taichung mayor Jason Hu were also present. High-ranking members of the People’s Daily and Xinhua News were present at the meeting, as was Wang Yang, chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference National Committee. Wang’s speech attempted to dissuade Taiwanese participants of any guarantees that America would intervene on behalf of Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion.

Former Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu. Photo credit: Han Kuo-yu/Facebook

The Want Want Group has also come under fire for its coverage of domestic Taiwanese politics, since this takes place in a manner aimed at benefiting political candidates preferred by Tsai Eng-meng. CtiTV is highly viewed by members of the pan-Blue camp and a dominant television network in Taiwan.

In May 2019, CtiTV gave 70% of its airtime to coverage of its preferred presidential candidate, Han Kuo-yu. CtiTV also inflated the crowd count at Han’s mayoral inauguration, to create the perception that Han’s support was much larger than it actually was, claiming that 800,000 were in attendance at the inauguration. Another report claimed that an “auspicious cloud” shaped like a phoenix had appeared above an event attended by Han along with fellow KMT mayors Lu Shiow-yen and Hou You-yi.

CtiTV was later fined 200,000 NT and 400,000 NT respectively for these reports. In addition to other fines, this resulted in CtiTV being fined over five million NT in 2019. The NCC stated today that CtiTV has been fined 10.73 million NT for 21 violations of the law in the past six years, the most of any television station. 

Consequently, the ruling on CtiTV will be highly significant for the Tsai administration going forward, as a litmus test on permissible actions by the government to regulate Chinese interference in Taiwan’s media. The KMT and aligned groups have accused the Tsai administration of seeking to carry out a “Green Terror” in persecuting political critics in taking action against CtiTV and Want Want Group outlets have sought to frame the issue as the Tsai administration undermining freedoms of press and freedoms of speech in Taiwan. Ironically for a pan-Blue media outlet, in consideration of the KMT was the former authoritarian party in Taiwan, in an editorial in the Want Want-owned China Times, defenders of CtiTV has sought to draw comparison to free speech martyr and independence activist “Nylon” Deng, who self-immolated himself in 1989 to protest restrictions on political freedom in Taiwan.

Other groups that have defended CtiTV include pan-Blue groups such as the New Party, Blue Sky Action Alliance, 333 Political Party Alliance. The Taiwan People’s Party, Taiwan Renewal Party, and deep green Formosa Alliance have also been reported as defending CtiTV, although CtiTV has been accused of trying to set up false interviews to bait politicians into making statements that can be interpreted as defending CtiTV. It is probable that such groups will protest the NCC ruling. By contrast, international press freedom NGO Reporters Without Borders’ East Asia Bureau stated in a press release that while the license non-renewal was “regrettable,” it “does not go against press freedom,” as “press freedom does not mean the absence of a regulation.”

However, one notes that in past years, the Tsai administration has generally refrained from taking action against pan-Blue outlets that serve as mediums for disseminating Chinese disinformation. Even when three New Party youth spokespersons came under scrutiny in 2018 for running an online media platform aimed at recruiting for a Chinese spy ring, Fire News, the Tsai administration took a light hand. Despite continuing to allege political persecution, the three New Party spokespersons are still free, have not been prevented from running for office, publish in Chinese state-run outlets, and were even allowed to travel to China.

Indeed, the Tsai administration is cautious regarding the allegation that it will be accused of violating freedoms of speech and freedoms of press. It proves a particular challenge in Taiwan that an entire half of the political spectrum calls, in effect, for Taiwan to cease to exist in becoming part of China; what would otherwise be construed as treason in another political context is a valid political view accepted as part of everyday politics in Taiwan, though one notes that Taiwan would obviously stand to lose its freedoms of speech and press if it were to become part of China.

New Party spokesperson Wang Ping-chung (right). Photo credit: Wang Ping-chung/Facebook

Consequently, as with the case of the three New Party spokespersons, the Tsai administration has more often adopted the strategy of allowing pan-Blue media outlets to do as they please, perhaps hoping that if it gives them enough rope in allowing them free reign, they will hang themselves. After all, the KMT is increasingly a marginal force in Taiwanese politics, particularly among young people.

Yet concerns regarding disinformation are on the rise, particularly given the potential effect that this could have on Taiwanese elections or in terms of effects on Taiwanese society. Former Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu’s meteoric rise from obscurity to becoming the KMT’s presidential candidate in 2020 was, in part, thought to be due to Chinese disinformation efforts, perhaps accounting for his unusual popularity among young people during his 2018 mayoral campaign.

While an Anti-Infiltration Act was passed on December 31st last year, to combat Chinese efforts to interfere in Taiwanese presidential and legislative elections in January, this was mostly political theater by the Tsai administration. The passage of the Anti-Infiltration Act, which took place with just over ten days before presidential elections, took place too late to actually significantly influence the outcome of presidential and legislative elections.

Moreover, in the past year since elections, the Tsai administration has not acted upon the Anti-Infiltration Act. Generally speaking, measures from the Tsai administration targeting disinformation, legal or otherwise, have not been proactively used.

Likewise, with increased international attention on Taiwan due to its successes fighting COVID-19, one has noticed a significant uptick in disinformation efforts targeting Taiwan. And with incursions into Taiwanese airspace by Chinese planes occurring on a near-daily basis and Chinese military drills on the rise around Taiwan, disinformation could be highly dangerous to Taiwan–for example, serving as pretext for a false flag attack by China.

It proves highly dangerous that one of Taiwan’s largest media platforms has a proactive interest in amplifying Chinese misinformation. And if the Tsai administration does not take action against an outlet as CtiTV–in which proof of connection to Chinese disinformation efforts has been clearly established–one does not expect the Tsai administration to ever take serious efforts to combat Chinese disinformation. In this sense, the NCC’s decision not to renew CtiTV’s broadcasting license is a major litmus test for the Tsai administration’s actions against Chinese disinformation going forward.

Given the reach of Want Want Group-owned media outlets, it may not be surprising that the Tsai administration was cautious when it came to the issue of CtiTV. The NCC took the unusual step of inviting Tsai Eng-meng to attend hearings regarding CtiTV’s license renewal, as a show of transparency, though it rejected claims by Tsai that he was not actively involved in running the company. The Want Want Group has also lashed out at the fact that academics involved in the Anti-Media Monopoly Movement presently sit on the NCC.

The National Communications Commission headquarters. Photo credit: Solomon203/WikiCommons/CC

But riding on its high popularity from its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and, because of the fact that Tsai will not be up for reelection in 2024 after having served two terms, the Tsai administration may be increasingly willing to take measures it views as necessary but unpopular at present. This can be observed similarly with the Tsai administration’s decision to lift the ban on imports of pork treated with ractopamine, something that has also led to backlash from the pan-Blue camp.

The Tsai administration acted to ban Taiwanese companies from acting as agents for Chinese over-the-top (OTT) providers in August. OTT providers are online streaming services such as Netflix, as distinguished from traditional cable or satellite networks. There have long been concerns in Taiwan about the inability of the Taiwanese government to regulate Chinese OTT providers. It is feared that the Chinese government could use OTT providers to spread disinformation or to try and promote political viewpoints favorable to a pro-unification political agenda. Chinese OTT providers have not been allowed to operate in Taiwan by the Taiwanese government, much as Taiwanese OTT providers are not allowed to operate in China, thus requiring local agents to operate in Taiwan.

Chinese OTT providers were previously excluded from regulations governing television and radio, leading to calls from domestic media platforms that OTT providers should face the same regulations that they do. The legislation to ban Taiwanese companies and individuals from acting as representatives for Chinese OTT providers was rolled out alongside new restrictions on Chinese investment in Taiwanese companies from the Ministry of Economic Affairs.

But Chinese OTT providers were not taken off the Internet, seeing as blocking Chinese OTT providers would Taiwanese users altogether would raise questions regarding free speech and censorship, and because Chinese OTT operators operate through servers in Hong Kong. As a result, though Chinese state-run media did try to frame the Tsai administration’s actions as a ban, in this sense, the Tsai administration was not making moves to ban Chinese OTT providers outright because they were not removed from access in Taiwan.

In a similar vein, the Tsai administration surprised in July by expelling two Chinese reporters for violating the terms of their visa, in acting as producers for a talk show shot in Taiwan despite that their visas were only for reporting.

With the Chinese government claiming that the expulsion represented the Taiwanese government cracking down on the press, the Tsai administration pointed to that this expulsion did not mean the expulsion of all Chinese reporters in Taiwan, and that journalists for Chinese state-run media outlets such as Xinhua and the People’s Daily, as well as Southeast Television’s other three reporters in Taiwan, continued to work in Taiwan unaffected.

Still, after the expulsion, there were calls on the Tsai administration to take action on other Chinese television programs being produced in Taiwan that could serve as platforms for disinformation, such as Southeast Television, CCTV and Cross-Strait Television, which were reported to have set up studios in Taiwan. This did not take place, with the Tsai administration possibly backing down due to cautiousness regarding optics.

Tweet by Presidential Office spokesperson Kolas Yotaka regarding the expulsion of Southeast Television journalists from Taiwan

Despite the significance of the Tsai administration moving against CtiTV, it is not impossible if there is sufficient backlash, the Tsai administration will satisfy itself with having primarily taken action against CtiTV and fail to target other Want Want Group-owned outlets or outlets that broadcast Chinese disinformation. 

Though questions have been raised regarding the non-partisan accuracy of deep green pollster Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation, historically a critic of the Tsai administration, a survey by the foundation from late October found 52.5% of respondents did not hope for CtiTV’s license to be revoked while 32.5% supported its non-renewal. As such, it is a question as to how the public reacts to the license non-renewal, then.

Such cautiousness on the part of the Tsai administration would not surprise, which over its past four years in power has had a tendency to back down in the face of criticisms more often than not. What comes next is highly dependent on how the NCC’s actions regarding CtiTV are perceived by the public.

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