TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Taiwan regulators have put strict conditions on a bid by a China-friendly media group to purchase the island's second largest cable TV system as concerns grow that China's commercial clout is already undermining freedom of the press in one of Asia's liveliest media markets.
The National Communications Commission approved a bid by Taiwan's China Times Group to buy the system for $2.4 billion in a decision released late Wednesday. But it requires CTG to sell a cable TV news station criticized for its pro-China content, and allow an independent group to screen the news broadcasts of a terrestrial station it controls.
The decision comes as other cable stations on the island weigh the advantages of silencing anti-China commentators to help them sell Chinese language programming to the lucrative China market. In one potentially far reaching move, an outlet normally known for its pro-independence, anti-China sentiment recently pulled the plug on a popular talk show with a reputation for unrestrained China bashing. Critics said the decision reflected the outlet's bid to try to sell Chinese-language soap operas on the mainland for many times the revenue it earned on the talk show.
With six round-the-clock cable TV news stations and three brashly partisan national newspapers — one owned by the China Times Group — media independence is a big issue on this island of 23 million people, particularly as it seeks to maintain its de facto political independence in the face of an unstinting Chinese bid to bring it under its control 63 years after the sides split in a civil war. Critics say the battle is already being lost, though Wednesday's NCC decision suggests that such a conclusion may be premature.
Kuang Chung-hsiang of National Chung Cheng University takes a pessimistic view of the future of Taiwan's media independence, pointing to news programming that is already heavy with coverage of China's rising economic power, but light on stories about human rights violations and rampant official corruption.
"The Chinese don't really have to work on the Taiwanese media, but rather let commercial interests do the job," he said. "One can argue that Taiwanese take China as just another foreign country and are not so interested in its affairs, but the disappearance of negative China reports no doubt has something to do with TV stations' craving for access to the mainland market."
Commercial ties between China and Taiwan are booming. Already substantial before Ma Ying-jeou was elected the island's president in 2008, they have now come to dominate the island's economy, aided by the inauguration of hundreds of weekly flights across the 160-kilometer (100-mile) wide Taiwan Strait, and the relaxation of once formidable trade and investment strictures.
One of the big Taiwanese winners in the China commercial sweepstakes has been CTG Chairman Tsai Eng-meng, who bought the group four years ago, after making a fortune in the mainland food market.
Tsai raised hackles earlier this year when he told a Washington Post reporter that China's 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters near Beijing's Tiananmen Square didn't produce anywhere near the number of casualties attributed to it by international media reports, including those from Taiwan.
Critics of his bid for China Network Systems, Taiwan's second-largest cable system, pointed to remarks like that, the absence of critical China coverage in CTG outlets, and the tendency of CTG publications like flagship newspaper the China Times to publish Chinese government advertising as straight news.
By putting strict conditions on CTG's China Network systems acquisition, the NCC appeared to acknowledge these criticisms, while trying to forestall the emergence of a single dominant media group in Taiwan.
But the NCC can only do so much to maintain the independence of Taiwan's media.
Two months ago the normally pro-independence SET TV Group discontinued "Making Waves," a popular talk show with a hardline anti-China bias, just as it was stepping up efforts to sell dramatic offerings — mostly soap operas — to outlets on the mainland. Host Cheng Hung-yi, a 10 year SET veteran, left the group at that time, in what critics said was a forced exit. Group executives denied the claim, saying health reasons were the cause of his departure.
Long time "Making Waves" panelist Ho Han-chun of National Taipei University said that before Cheng left the group, SET TV had asked him not to discuss subjects deemed sensitive to Beijing, including Taiwan independence, and political conditions in Tibet and Xinjiang. Cheng rejected the demand, Ho said, saying he could not gag the show's panelists even if he agreed to censor himself.
In interviews with local media, Cheng has declined to comment on the issue.
Taiwan's politically independent Wealth Magazine said SET's decision to pull the plug on "Making Waves" was largely economic. It said that while the show generated 2011 advertising revenues of some $16 million, it stood to make more than four times that amount — $66 million — selling drama programming to the mainland.
Such calculations were dangerous for SET, Ho said, because they put it on the slippery slope to pulling its punches for economic advantage.
"If SET TV indeed gets the drama deal, could they say no when the Chinese make another demand, perhaps one to influence public opinion at a critical time like elections," he asked.
In addition to SET, Taiwanese cable outlet TVBS is also trying to sell programming on the mainland. So far at least, its generally balanced China news coverage does not appear to have been influenced by its pending China programming plans.