A Taiwanese media tycoon known for his pro-China views will be allowed to take over one of the island’s largest cable TV systems, but must limit his control of his existing news stations.
The decision comes amid criticism that coverage of China has become slanted by Taiwan’s desire to do more business with the mainland.
The regulators’ requirement that Tsai Eng-men’s media group, Want Want China Holdings, distance itself from control of some of its news stations echoes concerns from many journalists and critics that Taiwan’s media – although generally free and willing to criticise politicians, often vociferously – is increasingly aware that anti-China coverage could damage their efforts to expand in China.
Want Want received conditional approval to take over cable TV operator China Network Systems for $2.4bn in a decision by Taiwan’s National Communications Commission released late on Wednesday.
Tsai, the group’s chair, is well-known for his support for China, where he first made his fortune. His critics say his existing newspapers and TV stations are overly influenced by his business interests on the mainland. Want Want is one of China’s biggest food and beverage groups.
“People are extremely uncomfortable to the point of being angry at him, knowing that he has a pro-China stance and that he has publicly advocated that Taiwan be part of China,” said Ketty Chen, a political scientist at National Taiwan University. “That’s the main reason why people don’t want him to become the Rupert Murdoch of Taiwan.”
Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang party has been encouraging more trade with China, already Taiwan’s biggest trading partner. Under current president Ma Ying-jeou, many barriers to trade and investment have been eliminated, and agreements between Taipei and Beijing have made it possible for the first time for Chinese tourists to visit the island. Taiwan has been governed separately from China since the civil war that preceded led to the Communist takeover of the mainland, and the Beijing government regards Taiwan as a breakaway province.
Earlier this year, Tsai drew protests in Taiwan after saying during an interview this year with the Washington Post that student protesters had not been massacred during the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. Most historians believe that hundreds were killed in Beijing after the army’s crackdown on protesters.
Taiwan’s regulators say they will require Want Want to separate itself from the news channel of one of its existing holdings, convert another of its news channels to non-news programming, and agree to independent supervision for news broadcasts on other channels it controls.
Last month, one TV station cancelled a popular talk show whose host was famously critical of China and sympathetic to Taiwan’s opposition, which supports Taiwanese independence from China.
“[The host] could not reveal in public why his show was sacked, but there are widespread reports that the boss of the television company wants to do more business in China,” said Chang Mau-Kuei, a sociologist at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica.
Taiwanese TV news and newspapers cannot be distributed in China, but many of the stations, including the one that cancelled the talk show, also produce entertainment programmes such as soap operas which are allowed to be sold into China.
The cable operator Want Want has a 20 per cent market share and leads the market in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital and largest city, according to MBK Partners, the private equity firm that is selling its stake in the company.