Next Media's Taiwan sale raises fears about media freedom

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Media captionThere have been protests against Next Media's decision to sell its Taiwanese newspaper and TV businesses

For decades and as recently as the late 1980s, Taiwan's media was tightly controlled under martial law and one-party rule.

But since then, Taiwan has developed into one of the freest and most competitive media markets in the world.

There are more than a dozen major newspapers on this small island, around 100 cable TV channels and thousands of magazines.

But the decision of Hong Kong-based Next Media to sell its Taiwanese newspaper, magazine and television businesses to two local consortia, some of whose members have strong business interests in China, has stoked fears that the editorial independence enjoyed by the various media may be under threat.

"We do not want to lose in our generation, something that was so hard to come by and will be so important for the next generation," said one of the speakers at the overnight protest held in front of Taiwan's cabinet building.

"This is not just about one company - Next Media - it's about media freedom in all of Taiwan," echoed a statement issued by some of the students involved.

Standing out

Despite the freedom it enjoys, much of the media is owned by groups or individuals with strong political leanings.

It is not uncommon to see rival papers or TV talk shows have a strong bias toward either the ruling or opposition party.

One of the reasons the sale of Next Media is causing so much concern is that the company stood out among this crowd.

Although sometimes criticised for being sensationalist, its independent-minded owner Jimmy Lai is not affiliated to any political party and has said he simply wants his journalists to pursue stories people want to read.

The company's animations of news events have made it famous worldwide, but locally it is better known for its muckraking journalism.

Its print media routinely uncovers scandals involving local politicians, including the former cabinet secretary general, who was later forced to resign over corruption charges.

Opponents of the deal fear that, if it is approved, the papers and TV stations currently owned by Mr Lai may lose their editorial independence.

Those fears were fanned further after Mr Lai refused to stipulate in the sale agreement that the new owners would need to uphold editorial independence, despite many protesting journalists and other employees of Next Media's flagship newspaper Apple Daily asking him to do so.

"Why would we? They're buying a company, they're buying a newspaper," Mark Simon, spokesman for Next Media told the BBC

No interference

For their part, some of the buyers have tried to ease concerns.

Mr Tsai Eng-meng, who owns Want Want China Times Group, has previously denied interfering in the editorial decisions of his newspaper and TV news channel.

Formosa Plastics Group has issued a statement saying its purchase was aimed at returning Taiwan's media to a level of professionalism, with objectivity, impartiality and no favouritism toward any political party or position.

But company spokesman SW Hou told the BBC it was not clear whether any of the buyers would sign an agreement promising to uphold editorial independence at Next Media. He said Formosa's president Mr Wang Wen-yuan might have wanted to buy Next Media because he had been unhappy with the local media's reporting about his factories' pollution and safety standards.

Neither the offices of Mr Tsai nor the other buyer protesters have objected to (Mr Jeffery Koo Jr, whose family owns the Chinatrust Financial Holding Co, one of the island's biggest banks) responded to the BBC's request for comment.

Monopoly market?

There are also worries that Taiwan's media would be dominated by just a few players should this deal be approved by the government.

One of the groups involved in the consortia, Want Want China Times Group, is already the largest media group in Taiwan.

Image caption Next Media employees have voiced concerns about editorial independence being under threat

If the deal with Next media is approved, it will own nearly 50% of Taiwan's news media.

Some of the other buyers involved in the deal, such as Mr Wang, president of the Formosa Plastics Group, have also been the focus of protestors.

His petrochemical and plastics factories have long been criticised for polluting the environment, although the company has defended its practices.

Environmental groups have also protested against the deal, expressing concern that reporting about environmental pollution would be limited.

China worries

Some of the buyers, especially Want Want China Times Group, have significant business interests in China, which has also stoked fears.

The group is owned by Tsai's Want Want Holdings Limited, one of the largest snack food makers in China. Mr Tsai is also known for his pro-Beijing views.

"Most of Mr Tsai's assets are from China. His group's media do not cover anything negative on China," Chen Siao-yi, head of the Taiwan Reporters Association told the BBC.

"With Next Media being controlled by him, it will of course lead to a different kind of coverage on China here."

"We can see this in Hong Kong already - through funding or advertisements, they keep the media from reporting negative news on China," she said.

This type of pro-China coverage can be especially threatening for a place like Taiwan, which is still wrestling with China over the issue of its sovereignty. China does not recognise Taiwan, regarding the island as a breakaway province, and wants unification.

"In Taiwan, they will report a pro-China view about cross-strait (Taiwan-China) relations, including on unification," Ms Chen added.

"The public is very much influenced by the media. For readers and audiences, we want a diverse source of expression, if more than half of the media is controlled by this group, the information we get will not be complete."

The biggest fear, perhaps, is that the pro-China views in these media many not just hurt editorial independence but also result in a regression of Taiwan's hard fought democracy.

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