James Stand is an intern for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The November 27 sale of Beijing critic Jimmy Lai’s Next Media Ltd. to Tsai Eng-Meng’s pro-Beijing media consortium Want Want Group has rekindled the debate over Taiwan’s media freedom. The proposed sale has exposed the failures of Taiwan’s media regulatory bodies, and, more importantly, has energized journalists, students, and freedom of speech advocates and inspired protests in defense of Taiwan’s free press.
The furor over the sale began with the perceived failure of Taiwan’s media regulatory agencies to stop the transaction and protect editorial independence. The sale itself, worth almost $600 million, follows a number of rulings from Taiwan’s National Communications Commission (NCC), in which the NCC repeatedly rejected Lai’s attempts to acquire a broadcasting license for his Next TV channel. The NCC cited doubts as to whether the channel could fulfill the “social responsibility” requirements set for broadcasters. The legal process proved financially draining to Lai’s entire Taiwan operation, and he sold all of Next Media—including his Next TV channel. Despite Lai’s best efforts, he was unable to keep it from Tsai’s Want Want Group, and the Free Trade Commission (FTC) is expected to approve the purchase within sixty days.
Tsai is no stranger to controversy. In response to his bid for China Network Systems (CNS) during the summer, a student movement bolstered by journalists and NGOs emerged, fearing that Tsai’s “media monster” would drastically reduce the island’s diversity of opinions, and by extension, its freedom of speech. During the NCC’s investigation and deliberation over the CNS sale, Tsai retaliated against the public criticism and demonstrations by launching vicious smear campaigns against protest organizers.
The pending sale of Next Media has only reignited and strengthened the Taiwanese commitment to a free press and freedom of speech. Under the banner of “Youth Alliance Against Media Monsters,” students from universities throughout Taiwan (and those currently studying abroad) have mobilized via the Internet, much of it over Facebook. The organization has led boycotts against the Want Want Group and taken to the streets in demonstrations against the company, the NCC, and now the FTC.
Taiwan’s Ministry of Education has added fuel to the fire by advising universities to keep note of demonstrators—tactics widely associated with the authoritarian days of the past. At a December 5 public hearing, after the Education Minister claimed that the Ministry’s statements had been misinterpreted, a student representative denounced him as a hypocrite. This served to politicize further the issue, with papers either supporting the student leader or demanding his apology. The opposition liberal Democratic People’s Party rushed to his defense and called for the cancellation of the sale.
Many Taiwanese youth are disheartened by the proposed purchase, wondering whether “there is something (they) really can do to make a difference.” However, many also appear to have found a sense of common purpose and passion. “I feel that Taiwan is still something worth being proud of—it’s democratic and free,” said a Taiwanese student currently living in Japan. “At least when something like this happens, so many students and young people are willing to stand up.”
At this early stage, it is unclear how far the movement against Tsai’s media monopoly will go. What is clear, however, is that these students are finding their voice, both online and on the streets, and training themselves for a more politically-conscious future. Non-traditional forms of media are their best means for organization and alternative news narratives. While this generation may not remember the island’s past struggles for democracy and free speech, it would be foolish to think that they aren’t aware of its value.