China Power

Taiwan Shaken by Concerns Over Chinese Influence in Media, Press Freedom

A report alleging that some Taiwanese media outlets receive instructions from Chinese officials has been countered with a libel lawsuit.

Nick Aspinwall
Taiwan Shaken by Concerns Over Chinese Influence in Media, Press Freedom
Credit: Presidential Office, Republic of China (Taiwan)

Want Want China Times, a Taiwanese media group long rumored to be closely linked to Beijing, is suing the Financial Times for libel over a report alleging Want Want-owned media outlets take daily editorial orders from China’s Taiwan Affairs Office.

Financial Times reporter Kathrin Hille spoke to journalists with Want Want’s China Times and CtiTV, one of whom said officials from the Taiwan Affairs Office “call every day” for advice on shaping coverage. Want Want has called the report “fake news” and is suing Financial Times, Hille, and Taiwan’s Central News Agency (CNA), which reported on Hille’s story.

The move follows months of speculation that Want Want is closely tied to the Chinese government. Taiwan’s National Communications Commission (NCC), which is analogous to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States, has fined Want Want media outlets on several occasions for inaccurate or unbalanced coverage.

An April report by the Chinese-language Apple Daily also alleged that one of Want Want’s companies received direct subsidies from Chinese authorities. Want Want threatened to sue Apple Daily at the time and denied that the funding influences its media outlets – the company itself manufactures snack foods and drinks for the Chinese and Taiwanese markets. However, Want Want’s CEO, Tsai Eng-meng, has said in the past that “unification will happen sooner or later” and has supported Kuomintang (KMT) presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu, the Kaohsiung mayor who favors closer ties with China. Han is challenging incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in next January’s presidential election.

The Financial Times report proved a bombshell in Taiwan not only for its content, but for Want Want’s reaction and the lingering anticipation over how the government will respond.

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The NCC has launched an investigation of Want Want outlets CtiTV and CTV and has said it will hand over the probe to relevant authorities “if the case has generated national security concerns,” according to a statement released by the commission last week.

In recent months, the NCC has been pushed to be more active in fining TV stations found to air false content, and further laws against “fake news” are being floated by Taiwan’s legislature. The laws retain DPP support but have drawn criticism from the KMT, which claims they are politically motivated.

Many have called for Taiwan’s National Security Council (NSC) and National Security Bureau (NSB) to take the lead in countering potential Chinese influence in Taiwan’s media. The NSB, which has faced criticism from many voices within the DPP, is currently embroiled in a separate scandal over tax-free cigarettes smuggled into Taiwan after Tsai’s diplomatic visit to four Caribbean allies.

Aside from the concerns over Chinese meddling raised in the Financial Times report, the looming court cases have raised concerns over press freedom protections within Taiwan.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said Wednesday the “abusive libel suit” was malicious and unwarranted, noting the journalist involved had received “harassing phone calls and messages after the article was released.” Cedric Alviani, head of RSF’s Taipei-based East Asia bureau, said in a statement that the Financial Times report was “quite plausible, considering the flaunty pro-China allegiance of the Want Want group.”

The Taiwan Foreign Correspondents’ Club (TFCC) said on Twitter it was “concerned about the recent dispute over a news media report which involves one of our members,” adding it was “closely monitoring the development of this case.”

Want Want’s case has some immediate pitfalls, as Taiwanese legal precedent gives strong latitude to media in libel cases concerning the content of a report, provided the accused party believed the report to be true upon publication.

But Want Want’s primary interest may not be to win the case – an outcome that appears highly unlikely. The virally popular candidacy of Han Kuo-yu, known within Taiwan as the “Han wave,” seems to grow only stronger amid controversy; the populist mayor has managed to consolidate support when criticized. Want Want’s newspaper and TV holdings, all of which have thrown their editorial support behind Han, will only capitalize on a more deeply divided Taiwan – not unlike the surge in popularity seen by Fox News in the United States, regardless of editorial balance and accuracy.

The Want Want China Times group was the main target of a June rally that drew tens of thousands to the streets of Taipei to protest the presence of pro-Beijing “red media” in Taiwan. DPP legislators supported the rally, and Legislator Wang Ting-yu called for a law to regulate “foreign agents,” similar to the mechanism used by the United States to regulate entities such as CGTN, Xinhua, and RT.

The DPP will also hold a series of conferences to discuss the influence of “red media” within Taiwan, along with strategies to counter disinformation within Taiwanese media.

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Chinese influence in Taiwan is set to be a major election issue, and the U.S. Congress has indicated a desire to monitor any potential meddling by Beijing in the upcoming election. The unanswered question, of course, is who will benefit politically from this, and from inevitable future controversies.