In this moderated discussion, three panelists from Taiwan will consider the complex issues this decision raises and debate when -- and if -- it is ever appropriate for government to regulate media content and limit access to the broadcast spectrum in a liberal democracy. Registration is free and open to the public.
Some additional somewhat disjointed thoughts follow...
Challenges to Media Freedom in a Liberal Democracy
1. Taking a TV Station Off the Air Should Set Off Alarm Bells about Media Freedom
Government action to take a TV station off the air, especially one that's highly critical of the ruling party, should raise alarm bells among any one who is concerned about media freedom. I am inherently skeptical of the case for closing down a media outlet -- any outlet -- based solely on the content of its political reporting and editorial content. (Repeated violations of terms of service or engaging in outright criminal behavior are legitimate reasons, but at least in theory these are separate from content moderation.) Asking a government agency to regulate television to ensure "accurate" or "professional" reporting is an open invitation to meddle in legitimate journalistic practice to favor some viewpoints over others (especially ones the government finds problematic or offensive).
So, I worry that Taiwan’s reputation as a bastion of media freedom – in a part of the world where that freedom is under constant pressure in many countries, and has been completely snuffed out in the People's Republic of China (PRC) across the Strait – is under some threat as a result of this decision, as this statement from the International Federation of Journalists suggests. (Related, Reporters Without Borders asserts the decision "does not go against press freedom" but also expresses "regret" at the impact.)
But there are some complicating factors here as well. For one, taking a station off the air is not the death penalty it once was. With the rise of the internet, social media, and YouTube, the traditional power of government regulators to control what news people watch has been undermined. In this case, the company can just take its programming to YouTube, as in fact CTiTV has done. (For instance, I watched one of our speakers appear on a talk show there last week.)
For another, the laissez-faire approach to media regulation that the United States has long championed has not really delivered non-partisan, high-quality political news that follows journalistic best practices and leaves viewers well-informed. Other countries that employ a stronger regulatory touch may be able to foster a better all-round media environment over the long run. Countries with strong public broadcasting don't necessarily have worse media freedom outcomes either. So it's not as clear as it once was that we should view government interference in news content and journalistic practice as the most serious threat to media freedom in liberal democracies these days.
2. There Is a Legitimate Public Interest in Regulating Who Uses the Broadcast Spectrum
The TV broadcast spectrum is a public resource, and it's licensed to media companies for limited use. The government does have a legitimate right to regulate that process so that it serves the public interest -- presuming we can agree on what that interest is. In Taiwan, the NCC -- rightly, in my view -- has jurisdiction over this process and the legal authority to control use of the spectrum. There is an interesting contrast here with print media in Taiwan, which since the Publishing Act was abolished in 1999 has not been overseen by any government regulator. That's one obvious way in which the requirements for the medium of television in Taiwan are stricter than those for print (or radio, or the internet, or social media...which is mostly regulated by the private social media companies themselves!)
3. There Is a Legitimate Public Interest in Promoting a Politically Diverse Media Environment
It's important in a liberal democracy to have a diverse set of political views represented in the media. This normative concern about allowing minority or unpopular points of view was effectively settled in Taiwan by the late 1990s, when under President Lee Teng-hui the Taiwan government began authorizing and licensing pan-green (i.e. pro-independence and pro-DPP) TV stations like FTV. One of the strengths of Taiwan’s media environment is its critical news reporting and diversity of news sources across the political spectrum, from pro-unification to pro-independence and everything in between. This decision to take CTiTV off the air appears, at least at first glance, to threaten that pluralism.
4. This is a Precedent-Setting Case
Since its creation in 2006, Taiwan's NCC has never before refused to renew a license to a TV station already on the air. That’s a drastic action akin to a death penalty. In a piece I wrote after the 2020 election, I argued that Taiwan’s regulators were doing the best they could to balance the need to monitor broadcast practices and crack down on false coverage, with the need to preserve diverse points of view on the airwaves. And one of the arguments I made was that the NCC had not overstepped its mandate because it had not actually removed one of the pro-China stations from the air. Now it has. One decision does not make a trend. But it potentially creates a precedent for the NCC to threaten any other station's license if it does not meet whatever demands the commission lays out.
And let's be fair here--TV stations on the other end of the spectrum (FTV, SET, and others), as well as newspaper, radio, and internet media, are guilty of at least some of the same sins as CTiTV and CTV. As a whole, Taiwan's news practices -- especially but not exclusively in TV news -- are pretty ethically dubious no matter the political leaning of their owners, with slanted political coverage, talk shows rife with misinformation, and a longstanding tendency to broadcast first and correct later in order to win the competition for viewers. If the NCC is going to start kicking stations off the air for shoddy news practices, none of Taiwan's TV companies should breathe easy.
5. The "Independent" NCC's Structure Leaves a Lot to be Desired
The NCC is supposed to be an independent, non-partisan commission. But the way its members are appointed, and the lengths of their terms, undercut at least the appearance of independence from the government and ruling party. All commissioners serve four-year terms--the same length as the president and legislature. As a result, all the current commissioners were appointed by DPP premier Su Tseng-chang and approved by a DPP majority in the legislature. When they voted 7-0 to deny CTiTV a license, the opposition KMT cried foul in part because the commissioners were all chosen by the ruling party. Even if partisan considerations did not actually play a role in this decision, it is hard to deny at least the appearance of favoring the DPP government's position because they were all chosen directly by that government.
In a postscript to this decision, CTiTV appealed it to the Taipei Administrative High Court, which ruled the NCC had the authority to deny it a license and upheld the decision. And that was that. The decision was rendered on November 18, the appeal denied on December 8, and the station went off the air at midnight on December 11, three days later. So it's really in the NCC's hands, not the court's, to regulate TV--whcih suggests Taiwanese leaders might want to rethink how to strengthen the NCC's political independence.
But on the other hand...
Both CtiTV and CTV (which is still on the air!) both faced multiple complaints over multiple years for their less-than-accurate and not-exactly-balanced news coverage, and they were warned and then fined repeated by NCC for their misleading political coverage. In one revealing incident, a Taipei city councilor took a call from a CTiTV salesperson offering him a spot on a talk show--and then said it would cost him NT$170,000 (about $US 5500). The Want Want group clearly didn’t take the terms of its license seriously, and blew off NCC fines and requirements.
7. Want Want China Times Media Group Hasn't Exactly Been Silenced
CTiTV and CTV are both part of same media conglomerate, Want Want China Times Group. When they were acquired by Tsai Eng-meng in 2009, the NCC imposed stringent terms to approve the sale, including requiring the editorial independence of these outlets from Tsai and his business group. Tsai responded by running a half-page ad on the cover of China Times, blasting the decision and threatening "'dangerous consequences" for the commissioners if the decision was not revoke. (And this was a KMT-appointed commission!) In 2012, Tsai also tried to acquire the major independent tabloid Apple Daily, and initially hid his involvement in the group seeking to buy the paper. That sparked major protests amid fears that a large share of Taiwan's media outlets would come under the editorial control of Tsai's group, and hence promote pro-Beijing editorial lines--as this review by New Bloom details. In the end, a KMT-appointed NCC effectively blocked the sale, and Apple Daily has remained independent.
More broadly, it's not obvious there's been a major impact on Taiwan's media diversity as the result of this decision. CTV is still on the air, and still highly critical of President Tsai and the DPP government. China Times continues to publish a daily newspaper. And CTiTV still exists--it's just moved its political broadcasts onto YouTube, where people can easily find it.
8. CTiTV and CTV Coverage Was Extremely Slanted in Election Campaigns
In the run-up to the 2018 local elections in Taiwan, both stations provided blanket coverage for Han Kuo-yu, the KMT's candidate in Kaohsiung. Coverage of his campaign dwarfed all other candidates in 2018 election campaigns, and grew even more disproportionate in spring and summer 2019, when Han declared he would run for president. Fines from the NCC were in large part due to this unbalanced coverage.
9. There Is Credible Evidence Both Stations Helped a PRC Influence Campaign
Over the last five years, there have serious concerns in Taiwan – concerns that I share -- that its democratic institutions were the target of a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) influence campaign. Taiwan’s democracy has been under extraordinary pressure from United Front efforts of the CCP to tilt the scales against Tsai Ing-wen and the ruling DPP, and they were slow to develop a counter-strategy. At height of Han wave in spring-summer 2019, CtiTV, CTV, China Times coverage consistently pro-Han, played down or ignored negative stories about PRC.
The bigger problem with this is that there's now pretty good evidence the Chinese Communist Party wanted to see Han win, and looked for ways to influence coverage of him. Given the documented links between the Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing and the China Times group, it's hard not to suspect a deliberate effort to boost Han, in concert with Beijing, through CTiTV and the other Want Want group properties. So maybe that justifies taking it off the air.
10. Want Want Itself Has Repeatedly Threatened Free Reporting
I detailed the media monopoly concerns from the Ma Ying-jeou above (point 7). But something equally egregious happened in 2019, when the Financial Times reporter Kathrin Hille published a story documenting regular coordination between the group and Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office. This was apparently an open secret among journalist circles, but no one else had dared to report on it for fear of retaliation from Want Want. Instead, they left it to Ms. Hille, who was quickly served with a lawsuit for defamation and a call for retraction of the story. Financial Times stood by her reporting, and finally, just last week, Want Want suddenly dropped the suit.
As Reporters Without Borders noted, it's Not Great for media freedom when defamation laws can be used against journalists like this to attempt to silence critical reporting. Despite her reporting standing up to scrutiny, Ms. Hill had the lawsuit hanging over her head for almost two years. That's not a great look for Taiwan. Nor doe it help the case of a media company that is complaining that Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP are threatening a free press, and its defenders in the opposition (including former president Ma Ying-jeou), who have alleged that "media freedom is dead in Taiwan" because of the NCC decision. They do not appear to me to deserve a whole lot of sympathy here.