Tuesday, August 03, 2010

KMT makes a mockery of free media

The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) confirmed on June 23 that Broadcasting Corporation of China (BCC) chairman Jaw Shaw-kong (趙少康) — founder of the pro-China New Party — was joining its team of campaign advisers and image experts ahead of the crucial November municipal elections.

Jaw, we have learned, was invited by KMT Secretary-General King Pu-tsung (金溥聰), a spin doctor who serves as the clearest evidence that, despite claims to the contrary, the KMT continues to extend tentacles in the media — both to grab its profitable assets and to control information.

A bit of history is in order to demonstrate how incestuous the relationship between the KMT and the media remains, even after years of alleged divestment.

Amid a program under the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration to end influence by political parties and the military in the media, in 2005 BCC (formerly a KMT-owned radio station) was privatized and sold to Jungli Investment Co, a subsidiary of the China Times Group, a media conglomerate that, since it was acquired in November 2008 by Want Want Group chairman Tsai Eng-meng (蔡衍明), has adopted an unequivocally pro-China editorial line. In December 2006, the China Times Group sold BCC to UFO Radio, which is controlled by Jaw. (Unsurprisingly, both BCC and UFO Radio were strong supporters of Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) during the presidential election, while far less wealthy stations tended to back the DPP.)

A mere three months after Tsai was acquiring the China Times Group, King was becoming chief executive officer of Next Media’s planned 24-hour news TV station, claiming that despite his close relationship with Ma — both as a campaign aide and former deputy Taipei mayor, among others — the TV station would provide “balanced” reporting on the Ma administration. Back then, King also vowed not to take a formal post with the Ma administration.

The decision to hire King as CEO was Next Media founder Jimmy Lai’s (黎智英), whose group lost the bid to acquire the China Times Group to Tsai’s Want Want. (Rumor has it that it was Lai who also arranged for King to get a six-month visiting professorship at Hong Kong University in the summer of 2008, which served as cover for King to do “underground” political work for Ma.)

Ten months later, in December last year, the National Communications Commission was rejecting Lai’s bid for a news channel in Taiwan. Within the same 24-hour period, the KMT was confirming that King was taking over as party secretary-general.

Since the KMT came back into power in 2008, it has faced numerous accusations of interference in the media, from personnel changes at Radio Taiwan International to the appointment of Joe Hung, a fellow at the National Policy Foundation — the KMT’s think tank — as chairman of Central News Agency. Half of Public Television Service’s (PTS) US$38 million budget was frozen by the KMT-controlled legislature in 2008, just as the party was considering increasing government influence over its programming.

The problems PTS has run into present a particularly worrying case and actually began two years prior to the KMT’s return to power, when the station became part of the Taiwan Broadcasting System (TBS), which also included the recently privatized Chinese Television System (CTS), formerly a KMT-owned media outlet. Around that time, a famous KMT legislator (who shall remain unnamed) was unashamedly telling a senior official at PTS that the KMT was just bidding its time and expected to regain control, if indirectly, of CTS and its prized assets (including valuable land), once the KMT came back into office.

On Jan. 1 the following year, Hakka Television, Taiwan Indigenous Television and Taiwan Macroview Television merged to form TBS. Under KMT pressure since 2008, not only did PTS see its government funds frozen by the legislature, but it also had to divided its now very limited resources to also ensure the operations of the other entities that now formed TBS.

In the past year or so, the PTS board has been attacked and intimidated by the KMT, often with the help of the Government Information Office (GIO). This includes verbally assaulting PTS officials in the legislature after some of them made critical comments about the Ma administration at a media conference in France, suing seven PTS board members, and breaking the law by approving eight KMT/GIO-selected board members in a legislature that (a) was in recess, and (b) whose composition of judges no longer reflected the balance of power in the legislature after the KMT lost a series of seats to the DPP. Rather than select a new panel of judges, as required by law, the legislature claimed it could use the one from the previous legislative session. And it got away with it.

The legislature passed an amendment to the Public Television Act (公共電視法) in June increasing the number of PTS board members, a move that was largely seen as an attempt by the government to increase its influence on PTS. Only an injunction by acting chairman Cheng Tung-liao (鄭同僚) halted the appointment of the eight board members and that of his likely replacement, the KMT’s hand-picked Chen Shih-min (陳世敏), a former colleague of King at National Chengchi University. So problematic was the whole process that the Control Yuan censured the GIO for what it said were problematic procedures involving the appointment of the eight members. Still, this didn’t prevent “acting chairman” Chen Sheng-fu (陳勝福) — head of the Ming Hwa Yuan Taiwanese Opera troupe and a strong supporter of the KMT, whose wife, opera diva Sun Tsui-feng (孫翠鳳), was tapped by the KMT as a potential spin-spokesperson for the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) — from showing up in court with a mere “note of acknowledgment” (hardly a legal document) from the GIO to have the injunction against the eight (including himself) lifted. The executive letter was stamped, but PTS allegedly never saw it (as a “goodwill” gesture, the GIO injunction against the six original board members was also lifted so that the internecine-stricken board could resume its work).

Not only does this point to the judiciary doing the KMT’s bidding in facilitating the party’s assault of free media, but the Control Yuan didn’t even lift a finger to stop the process.

A senior official at PTS who is very close to all this told me on condition of anonymity that the man behind all this is no other than King, whose cronies are either seeking to get PTS “on message” or to regain control of CTS assets. The official also said that under the DPP, PTS was very much left alone and allowed to operate as an independent broadcaster, as it should.

There is very little independent media left in Taiwan, and the little that remains is, like PTS, under assault. Equally worrying is the fact that the non-independent majority is developing increasingly close relations with government, with officials — like King and Jaw — effortlessly crossing from one side to the other and ensuring the interests of both in the process.

Late last month, reports emerged that an amendment that would scarp a seven-year ban on investments by political parties, government agencies and the military were making their way through the Executive Yuan. Early copies of the revision state that, if passed, the three groups could be allowed to indirectly own as much as a 10 stake in satellite TV broadcasters.

A clause, meanwhile, would prohibit public officials from holding management posts in the industry.

The amendment is believed to have passed a preliminary review by the Executive Yuan and would also need to be approved by the (KMT-dominated) legislature before coming into force.

KMT spokesman Su Jun-pin (蘇俊賓) said that as political parties, government and the military are different in nature, they should not be lumped together pertaining to their investment and management of media outlets.

KMT Legislator Justin Chou (周守訓) said he supported relaxing the regulations.

Note: For reasons that I will not discuss here, I have been unable to publish this op-ed in the Taipei Times.


Henry said...

Excellent report, Michael. I applaud that your efforts maintain the decency of Fourth Estate of Taiwan- which we've known that it is a long way to go/ fight.

Thanks for giving us alertness, anyway.

mike said...

So the obvious guess is that the Taipei Times was implicitly or explicitly warned not to make a stink about this. Michael - do any of your colleagues keep similar blogs to this in Mandarin, and is anyone reading them?

J. Michael Cole 寇謐將 said...

Mike: Your theory is as valid as any, and I regretted not being able to pulish my op-ed. I also approached the 'South China Morning Post,' which also turned it down. Regarding your question, as far as I know, I am the only employee at the 'Taipei Times' who maintains a blog on politics — in English or Mandarin.