Politics & Law
Taiwan's tricky media balancing act
The legal tussle over CtiTV’s licence renewal illustrates how difficult it is to balance regulating media, stemming Chinese influence, and avoiding allegations of politically persecuting political opponents.
By Brian Hioe
The Taipei High Administrative Court overturned its 2020 ruling rejecting CtiTV’s application to renew its broadcast licence in early May. This marks a victory for CtiTV, whose broadcast license was not renewed in 2020 by the National Communications Commission (NCC), though the NCC states that it will appeal the ruling.
In particular, CtiTV’s broadcast license was not renewed over its coverage in the lead-up to the 2020 elections. CtiTV was fined more than NT$5 million for its coverage in 2019, with the network facing NT$10.73 million in fines for 21 legal violations in the six years prior to 2020.
Reasons for the non-renewal include that in May 2019, CtiTV spent 70% of its airtime covering its preferred presidential candidate, Han Kuo-yu, later inflating the crowd count in reporting on his mayoral inauguration to claim that 800,000 were in attendance. Another report that was singled out claimed that an “auspicious cloud” shaped like a phoenix appeared above an event that Han, along with Taichung mayor Lu Shiow-yen and New Taipei mayor Hou You-yi attended. Generally speaking, coverage by CtiTV was favourable to the pan-Blue camp.
Since its broadcast license was not renewed, CtiTV has been operating as an online streaming network for over three years, having been pushed to withdraw from channel 52. Ironically, the initial ruling may have pushed CtiTV to innovate, seeing as television networks are increasingly not watched by young people but streaming video content on YouTube is highly popular. As a streaming network, CtiTV places a great deal of focus on engaging with viewers, soliciting donations and responding to comments in real time online.
However, the ruling raises questions about media freedoms in Taiwan. For its part, CtiTV and the pan-Blue camp alleged that the NCC has become dominated by the Tsai administration and acts on its behalf to persecute political opponents, hence CtiTV’s failure to get its license renewed. On the other hand, the Tsai administration has defended itself by pointing to CtiTV’s history of violations. At the time of CtiTV’s license non-renewal, Reporters Without Borders stated that the move was regrettable but did not necessarily violate media freedoms, seeing as regulating media does not necessarily violate press freedoms.
The firestorm over CtiTV is why the pan-Blue camp has continued to take issue with the Tsai administration’s efforts at media regulation. The KMT has criticized the approval of Mirror Media’s application for a broadcast license, to assume the slot previously used by CtiTV, with the salient issue being retribution over CtiTV. That is, the KMT alleges that Tsai administration-appointed officials on the NCC board circumvented review measures and approved Mirror Media’s broadcast license because the media outlet favours the pan-Green camp.
Likewise, the KMT has attacked efforts by the Tsai administration to regulate Chinese over-the-top (OTT) providers, referring to streaming platforms. The Tsai administration has sought to crack down on Taiwanese companies acting as intermediaries for OTT providers, seeing as it cannot regulate such OTT providers. However, it has not made moves to ban Taiwanese subscribing to Chinese OTT providers outright, as that would violate press freedoms. The KMT has framed this as political persecution nonetheless.
When it comes to the Tsai administration’s attempts at regulating media, including CtiTV, the elephant in the room is Chinese influence. At the same time, the Tsai administration needs to avoid the perception that it is politically persecuting opponents. The Tsai administration needs to avoid the international perception of democratic backsliding in Taiwan, as occurred in many other formerly authoritarian countries, because the international view that Taiwan is a democracy serves to differentiate it from China, which is not.
CtiTV is owned by foodstuff tycoon Tsai Eng-meng, the founder of the Want Want Group. Tsai purchased CtiTV and China Television Systems, along with the China Times, in the early 2010s. Tsai made no secret that his interest in purchasing media outlets in Taiwan was to improve perceptions of China in Taiwan, in line with his pro-unification views.
During this period, Tsai also made moves that suggested he was interested in purchasing the Apple Daily and other outlets critical of China, raising fears that he hoped to purchase outlets so that they would not be critical of China. Certainly, CtiTV, the China Times, and other media organizations became decidedly less critical of the Chinese government after they were purchased by Tsai and the Want Want Group. It was also thought that Tsai hoped to influence the KMT’s political direction by purchasing these media outlets, as later seen in his fervent promotion of Han Kuo-yu for the KMT’s 2020 presidential candidate.
Fears over the effects of what was termed to be Tsai’s efforts at “media monopoly” led to the outbreak of the Anti-Media Monopoly Movement in 2011 and 2012, one of the predecessor movements of the 2014 Sunflower Movement. The pan-Blue camp has honed in on the fact that academics and media experts involved in the Anti-Media Monopoly Movement were later appointed to the NCC by the Tsai administration.
But the issue of Chinese influence remains sensitive. The Tsai administration’s non-renewal of CtiTV’s broadcast license was on technical matters. What was not addressed were reports by the Financial Times in July 2019 that Want Want Group-owned outlets were directly seeking approval from China’s Taiwan Affairs Office before running stories, and reports by the Apple Daily in April 2019 that the Want Want Group received over 477 million Chinese yuan—around NT$2 billion—from the Chinese government between 2017 and 2018 in return for positive content.
Moreover, in May 2019, the Want Want Group co-organized an event in Beijing with the state-run Beijing Newspaper Group. Seventy representatives from Taiwanese media groups including the president of the China Times, editor-in-chief of the United Daily News, chair of the Taiwan Radio and Television Program Association, and chair of CTV were present. At the event, participants were urged to assist in efforts to promote unification between Taiwan and China, and participants signed a cooperation agreement.
The Tsai administration and NCC has notably avoided going after CtiTV and Want Want-owned outlets over such charges, likely due to the political sensitivity. Specifically, the Tsai administration may have feared being accused of politically persecuting opponents to crack down on media freedoms if it went after them on this pretext, hence why it did not renew CtiTV’s broadcast license under the auspices of domestic reports.
But this illustrates the fine line that the Tsai administration treads regarding how to balance regulating media, stemming Chinese influence, and avoiding allegations of politically persecuting political opponents. This proves difficult in an environment in which promoting unification is, in fact, an acceptable view that is part of the political spectrum.
Controversy regarding CtiTV, then, illustrates that this debate is far from over. But the NCC’s actions against CtiTV were already a litmus test of how much action could be taken against networks accused of assisting Chinese “United Front” efforts and how attempts to legally regulate them would be framed. Seeing as Want Want Group-owned outlets were already the worst offenders, it is probable that the Tsai administration or any future DPP administration’s ability to regulate media will be curtailed if it is unable to even take action against CtiTV. After all, while there has been much attention on the issue of online misinformation and disinformation that has been circulating through social media networks in recent years, it may be a more significant issue that one of Taiwan’s major television networks could be taking say in its direction from the Chinese government, and acts to favour the candidates of its preferred camp.
Brian Hioe is a Taiwanese American writer, translator, and the founding editor of New Bloom