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Why Taiwan Killed a TV News Broadcasting License Despite Legal Freedom of Speech


Taiwan has revoked a television broadcasting license for a cable news channel because the openly pro-China outlet had aired inaccurate reports and ignored warnings to reform, a regulatory body said in an unusual test of the democratic island’s normally free-wheeling media scene.

The National Communications Commission’s decision Nov. 18 to revoke the license of Chung Tien Television’s CTi News stands out because Taiwan has some of Asia’s least restricted mass media. CTi News must close on Dec. 11, when its six-year license expires.

CTi News broadcasts pro-China material – unpopular with much of the island’s population – as well as criticism of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party. The party takes a guarded view of relations with Beijing, a political rival of Taiwan going back more than 70 years.

$400,000 in fines

Commissioners cited serial violations of media-related rules and found that CTi News failed to discipline itself after a review two years ago. The 962 public complaints the commission had received about CTi through last year made up nearly a third of all gripes received, commissioners said in a statement Wednesday.

The channel has broken rules 25 times since its license renewal in 2014, received formal warnings twice and paid fines 23 times totaling about $400,000, the statement says. CTi News disrupted public order on five occasions, the commission found. In 2014, the commission renewed CTi’s license on the condition that it would set up mechanisms to improve.

“Although some of its programs have received approval through awards, the core programming of daily news and political discussion kept violating the rules,” the statement says.

Supporters of revoking the license believe the commission went after CTi News mainly for false reporting.

CTi News came under fire last year over the accuracy of a report that farmers had discarded pomelo fruit in a reservoir and the broadcaster was fined the equivalent of $35,000. The channel has been accused too of producing distorting reports that irritate the Taiwan government.

'Check, check, check'

Chung Tien Television should take “responsibility,” said George Hou, a former mass media instructor at I-Shou University in Taiwan.

“Every time I teach, I tell the students that if you’re doing this work it’s because you possess a broadcasting tool that everyone is going to see, so you need to do something, which is check, check, check,” Hou said. “If you haven’t done that, then you’re doing fake news.”

Journalism advocacy group Reporters Without Borders said in a statement that it “regrets” the license revocation because it affects the CTi News staff. It asked the commission to disclose all evidence that renewing CTi's license would have endangered the public.

At the same time, the commission’s move doesn’t violate press freedom, Reporters Without Borders added.

The media should take a government watchdog role but not just put out content that suits in-house agendas, said Cedric Alviani, the group’s East Asia bureau director.

“You do not want [government officials] to abuse power, and you want to hold them accountable, so this is what we call press freedom, not the freedom of media owners to publish whatever content suits their interests,” Alviani said.

China claims sovereignty over Taiwan and has threatened use of force, if needed, to unify the two sides. Each has been self-ruled since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s when Mao Zedong’s Communists routed Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, who relocated to Taiwan.

Most Taiwanese said in government surveys last year they oppose unification with China. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen also rejects unification.

As part of its democracy, Taiwan allows a media scene that has spawned a half-dozen cable news channels along with multiple daily papers and an ever-expanding list of news websites. It cannot legally discipline a media outlet for views expressed on China.

Skeptics, particularly people close to today’s opposition Nationalist Party, say commissioners acted under government pressure to kill the 26-year-old network’s license. The Nationalists advocate dialogue with China on Beijing’s precondition that both sides identify as part of the same country.

The commission is not impartial, as it should be, said Chao Chien-min, dean of social sciences at Chinese Culture University in Taipei.

“Why do we have a way to close it down? Who gives you the power?” Chao asked. “Can the government decide that the content of that news is incorrect?”

'It's an open secret'

Chung Tien Television on Nov. 18 called the license revocation “illegal” and cited lack of “due process” as well as “flimsy reasoning.” It announced plans to file for temporary relief of the commission’s ruling and take legal action against the decision.

In a separate statement, the broadcaster called the commission’s move “politically motivated.” It acknowledged major network shareholder Tsai Eng-meng’s support for a China-Taiwan dialogue process that would identify both sides as part of China. The shareholder also runs a company that’s in charge of a giant food and beverage firm in China.

Sean Lien, vice chairman of the National Policy Foundation, a think tank close to the main opposition party, attributed the decision to politics.

"Although the National Communications Commission will never put 'political censorship' as their main reason to shut down CTi, it's an open secret to everyone," he said.

Around Asia, forced closures of media outlets are more common in authoritarian countries such as China and Vietnam. In the Philippines, authorities use legal and extrajudicial means to snuff the media as well as individual reporters.

Reporters Without Borders asked that Taiwan’s commission use equal levels of “exigence” when reviewing all future media licenses “no matter the media’s political orientation.”