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The End of the Road for Apple Daily Taiwan

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The End of the Road for Apple Daily Taiwan

The influential outlet has been shuttered and rebranded by a new owner, adding to concerns about foreign influence in Taiwan’s media sphere.

The End of the Road for Apple Daily Taiwan
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Solomon203

The fate of Apple Daily Taiwan, Taiwan’s version of the Hong Kong pro-democracy tabloid, has been uncertain for some time. Most recently, the online outlet has shifted hands to Singaporean entrepreneur Joseph Phua, rebranding as Next Apple News. Concerns about the sale have continued to be raised by Taiwanese civil society groups.

Apple Daily Taiwan was one of the major media outlets in Taiwan, having entered the Taiwanese market from Hong Kong in the 2000s. Apple Daily Taiwan distinguished itself with a strong commercial focus on gossip about celebrities, politicians, and public figures, including running a paparazzi team to gather information. Apple Daily Taiwan also became well-known for its 3D animated cartoons of incidents involving public figures, particularly where stories involving sex or crime were involved. This subsequently had a large impact on the media landscape in Taiwan, pushing other outlets to a similar style of coverage to compete.

Much as with its parent company in Hong Kong, Apple Daily Taiwan was politically aligned with pro-democracy stances critical of China, which more often positioned it alongside the pan-Green camp. Unlike other Taiwanese media outlets, however, Apple Daily did not fit squarely into the pan-Green or pan-Blue camps, with pan-Green politicians and public figures considered fair game by the outlet for tabloid gossip.

Apple Daily Taiwan discontinued its print edition in May 2021, having already pivoted toward being an online outlet. This took place shortly before Apple Daily in Hong Kong also printed its last issue and shut down in June 2021, following the arrest of media executives including founder Jimmy Lai, as well as the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, COO, and the CEO of its publisher, Next Digital. The arrests were largely seen as political retaliation for Apple Daily’s strong pro-democracy stance, including sympathetic coverage of the 2019 mass protests. Likewise, 18 million Hong Kong dollars in assets belonging to the newspaper were frozen and its offices were raided by 500 police officers. Apple Daily staff were warned not to return to the offices, due to the possibility of arrest.

During this period, Apple Daily Taiwan emphasized that it was separate from Apple Daily in Hong Kong, that it was still financially solvent, and that it would continue to operate normally. That being said, a Hong Kong court-appointed liquidator sought to acquire the newspaper’s assets in Taiwan. Meanwhile, Apple Daily Taiwan stated in June 2021 that it had entered negotiations with a buyer to purchase Amazing Sino International Limited, the company that operates the outlet.

The Economic Democracy Union (EDU), which played a large role in the 2014 Sunflower Movement, argued that the Taiwanese government had no legal obligation to comply with the liquidator. Likewise, the EDU raised the possibility that information about the Apple Daily Taiwan’s subscribers, its writers, or staff – which included Taiwanese in China, Hong Kongers, and Chinese nationals – would be dangerous if this ended up in the hands of the Hong Kong government, potentially leading to reprisals against such individuals.

The Ministry of Culture eventually stated that Apple Daily Taiwan was not to hand over information across borders, while pan-Green parties such as the New Power Party and Taiwan Statebuilding Party called for the sale of Apple Daily Taiwan to be blocked if it was to pro-China interests.

The possibility of China acquiring a Taiwan-based outlet, potentially using it as a platform to disseminate pro-China views, raised specters of the Anti-Media Monopoly Movement in 2012. The Anti-Media Monopoly Movement broke out in reaction to Want Want Group owner Tsai Eng-meng acquiring the China Times and China Network Systems. Tsai was quite open about the fact that his intentions in acquiring the newspaper and television outlet were to promote positive views of China in Taiwan. At the time, Tsai also sought to acquire Apple Daily Taiwan during a period in which Jimmy Lai was considering divesting the outlet, due to lack of profitability.

In the decade since, Apple Daily Taiwan and Financial Times have reported that Want Want-owned outlets directly allow China’s Taiwan Affairs Office to have a say in their editorial direction and what articles the outlets run, as well as accepting 477 million Chinese renminbi in funding from the Chinese government in return for sponsored content. Want Want has sought to strike back with lawsuits against Apple Daily, Financial Times journalist Kathrin Hille, and Taiwan’s state-run Central News Agency for reporting on this scoop.

The role of Chinese-controlled media outlets has increasingly been a concern in Taiwan in past years. Phoenix Television pulled out of the Taiwanese market earlier this year after it was labeled Chinese state-owned. Bauhinia Culture Holdings Limited, which is owned by the Chinese government, became the largest shareholder in 2021 by purchasing 21 percent of the company’s shares. China Mobile, which is Chinese state-owned, also holds 19.68 percent of Phoenix Television’s shares.

Similarly, Taiwan’s National Communications Commission has moved to ban Taiwanese companies acting as agents for Chinese over-the-top (OTT) providers such as iQiyi and WeTV. This ban does not prevent such content from being streamed in Taiwan, as it only targets Taiwanese companies acting on behalf of Chinese companies, as a result of concerns about the inability of the Taiwanese government to regulate Chinese OTT providers.

Reports in Hong Kong’s Ming Pao in June suggested that Hong Kong businessman Kenny Wee and Singaporean entrepreneur Joseph Phua would be Apple Daily Taiwan’s new buyers. Phua is the co-founder of 17LIVE, a major streaming platform operating in Taiwan. Apple Daily Taiwan then applied with the Taipei Department of Labor to lay off 280 employees, even though the situation regarding the outlet’s status was not clear.

Phua’s involvement raised some concerns, given fears about Chinese disinformation spreading through streaming platforms, and pan-Green groups raised the possibility that Wee and Phua might be acting as intermediaries for China. The EDU continued to raise concerns about potentially sensitive information held by Apple Daily Taiwan and filed a lawsuit against CEO Wu Yu-ai and CFO Johnny Chern for breaches of the Personal Data Protection Act.

Finally, in August, Phua announced that Apple Daily Taiwan would be shutting down on August 31 and that the outlet would be shifting 96 percent of its staff to a new company, Next Apple News. Next Apple News would have a new trademark and operate a new website, which was launched on September 1. Next Apple News will run under Phua’s Taiwan-based Long Cheng Creative Company.

Kenny Wee is apparently no longer involved in the company, with Phua stating that Wee was unable to provide necessary documentation to prove that he could dispose of Apple Daily Taiwan’s assets. Wee claimed to have been given this right by the Hong Kong count-appointed liquidator.

Phua emphasized that data and content from Apple Daily Taiwan would not be moved to the new site. Data on past employees will be sealed for five to seven years; subscriber data and news material will be permanently sealed; and tax and financial data will be destroyed after five to ten years. A charitable foundation operated by Apple Daily would not shut down and would still operate.

However, the EDU and other pan-Green groups have continued to raise questions about whether the data protections promised by Phua will be adequate, with particular scrutiny on what the company means by sealing data permanently or temporarily. The EDU further accused the Taiwan Asset Management Corporation (TAMCO) of assisting Apple Daily Taiwan and Next Apple Media and seeking to implement Hong Kong’s national security legislation in Taiwan, which TAMCO has responded to by announcing a lawsuit against the EDU.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA) has stated that it will evaluate Next Apple Media’s trademark. Despite Phua’s claims that Next Apple Media will be separate from Apple Daily, the outlet’s name and logo clearly suggest reference to Apple Daily and its parent company, Next Media. As such, it is possible that the MOEA will deem Next Apple Media’s trademark in conflict with Apple Daily Taiwan. The MOEA has stated in August that it does not have enough manpower to address the issue immediately, but that it will seek to do so in five months.

In the meantime, in its first two weeks, Next Apple News has operated without major incident, though its coverage has mostly stayed away from political news and instead focused on celebrity gossip or tabloid fodder. Either way, it would take a significant amount of time for Next Apple News to build up as large a following as Apple Daily Taiwan. On its newly launched Facebook page, at present, Next Apple News has less than 22,000 followers, as compared to Apple Daily Taiwan’s 3.7 million.