By Ming-yeh Rawnsley.

The student-led Anti-Media Monopoly Movement (反媒體壟斷運動) in Taiwan has garnered strong support within and outside the island since the second half of 2012. Campaigners have championed five issues: (1) anti-media monopoly, (2) anti-Chinese interference (the “China factor,” which refers to Taiwanese businesspeople with economic interests in China), (3) safeguarding press freedom, (4) strengthening public service broadcasting, and (5) strengthening labour unions within the media industry (see “Anti-media monopoly explained”). The island’s independent regulator, the National Communication Commission (NCC, 國家通訊傳播委員會) originally said that the laws tackling the issues of media ownership would not be ready until 2014 when a new bill on regulating the convergence of media and telecommunication industries is scheduled to be drafted. However under tremendous public pressure, the NCC finally published the “Prevention of Broadcasting  and Television Monopoly and the Maintenance of Diversity Act ” (廣播電視壟斷防制與多元維護法草案) on 20 February 2013. Two public hearings were organised on 18 and 21 March to invite comments and then the anti-media monopoly policies will be discussed formally within the Executive Yuan (行政院) before the draft Act reaches the Legislative Yuan (立法院) in June 2013.

This bill has many merits. For example, it responds to the issues raised by the anti-media monopoly campaigners and covers the following sections: (1) regulating cross-media ownership, (2) safeguarding editorial freedom and media self-regulation, including the establishment of labour unions for journalists, editors and media workers, (3) regulating the cable TV market by including Multiple System Operators (MSO, 多系統頻道經營者) and Channel Distributors (頻道代理商) in the new law for the first time, (4) enhancing public’s right and access to the media, and (5) strengthening public service broadcasting. However, several draft policies have also caused much debate, and the most contentious are about the media ownership, labour unions for media workers and public service broadcasting.

In terms of media ownership, the draft bill stipulates that the merger of news channels will not be allowed if the combined ratings will be over 5% as a result of such merger. Merger may be permitted as exceptional cases if the combined ratings are lower than 5% but higher than 3%. Two opposing camps challenge this regulation from different angles. On the one hand, media scholars believe that the ceiling set by the NCC is too high to prevent media monopoly. As Professor Jian-san Feng (馮建三) points out, the combined ratings of all news channels in Taiwan is between 2.4–3%. Hence it seems impossible for a merger application to be rejected on the basis that the combined ratings of their news channels hit the 5% limit (see “多元文化是目標, 壟斷防制是手段”). Internet news editor Jing-tang Lin (林靖堂) also urges the NCC to clarify the methods of obtaining accurate figures for viewership, listenership and readership as they constitute a vital benchmark for the application of media merger (see “更趨嚴格的反壟斷修法, 值得肯定也值得憂慮”).

On the other hand, representatives of the media industry believe that the cap on ratings is overly strict and will prevent media owners from further investment. Lawyer Ching-yuan Ye (葉慶元) stresses that the major problem of the media in Taiwan is intensive market competition, which results in the trivialization of content and sensationalist approach to journalism. Cable industry representative Shu-fen Pent (彭淑芬) says that merger is normal occurrence in a free market. If a media company receives good ratings for their news programmes and wishes to expand their business, they should not be punished for their good work or for being ambitious. Ye and Peng think that the policy will hamper growth and restrict the development of the media industry in Taiwan (see “反媒體壟斷法,業者憂阻撓產業發展”). In other words, both media scholars and media practitioners disagree with the proposed policy even though their reasons are directly opposite from each other.

Regarding the establishment of labour unions, it is worth noting that all companies in Taiwan are supposed to establish their unions by law. However there is no penalty to the company when there is not a union and thus most private companies do not bother. As most media companies in Taiwan are privately owned, few labour unions exist within the media sector. Hence media experts believe that it is insufficient to simply encourage media workers to join labour unions. It is suggested that the establishment of a labour union must be seen as an essential criteria for approving or renewing licence to a media company. Otherwise scholars fear that the new policy designed by the NCC will not be more effective than existing laws (see “反壟斷,要工會,要公共”).

Finally, the Taiwan Broadcasting System — a public service-oriented network — was expanded in 2006 to include eight channels, most notably Public Television Service (PTS, 公視), Chinese Television System (CTS, 華視), Indigenous TV (原視), Hakka TV (客家電視) and Taiwan Macroview TV (宏觀電視). Although the public service network — the PTS in particular — has launched various initiatives (such as PeoPo, 公民新聞) and produced quality programming that receive positive feedback from viewers, the average ratings have been low (under 1%) and the output of in-depth reportage, investigative journalism and international news has been inadequate. The major difficulty encountered by the PTS and the Taiwan Broadcasting System in general is the lack of financial resources. Therefore, while it is commendable that the NCC’s draft policy wishes to enhance the public’s right and access to the media, as well as to strengthen public service broadcasting as a whole, an innovative and practical funding structure must be developed to allow public service broadcasters appropriate financial means to achieve such goals.

On the surface, the debate over the cap for media merger may be a technical issue, but ultimately it is about the type of media environment that democratic Taiwan wishes to shape and create. The demand for the liberalization of the media began in the 1980s as part of the process of democratization. However during political transition, the media industry sacrifices the democratic ideal for profit and commercial growth, which has consequently transformed the landscape of journalism. Liberal commentators routinely discuss the market as a panacea for problems within the media. Their logic is deceptively simple: by conceding greater powers to consumers and creating the conditions for greater competition within the industry, market mechanisms will compensate for and eventually subdue problems arising from ownership and bias. Yet as demonstrated in Taiwan since the 1990s and especially since the 2000s, the existence of free media does not necessarily mean independent or responsible media that can fulfill the democratic expectations of citizens. Neither does competition necessarily stimulate innovation or investment in the media sector. In fact, far from promoting pluralism and diversity of programming, the tyranny of the market is driving media practitioners towards sharing formats that attract middle-ground audiences and the industry towards the concentration of ownership in the hands of a few powerful private individuals and consortia that are not accountable to the public but only to their shareholders.

The NCC’s draft Act should aim to create a well-structured media market so that diverse media that offer what might be categorized as ‘quality’ content can find their corresponding spaces. It is highly encouraging that the NCC’s desires to nurture labour unions for media workers and to foster a stronger public service broadcasting sector are articulated in the new bill. Nevertheless, as laws that regulate labour unions and public service broadcasting already exist, the involvement of different governmental departments (including the new Ministry of Culture), the industry and civil society is essential to enhance the effectiveness of the anti-media monopoly policies.

Dr Ming-yeh T. Rawnsley is Research Fellow at the University of Leeds and Secretary-General of the European Association of Taiwan Studies.

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