Protests mar Taiwan hearing on Next Media deal

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) – Movie directors turned up at a protest outside a Fair Trade Commission Thursday against the takeover of Next Media’s Taiwan operations by a group of five tycoons.
The deal, which was signed in Macau earlier this week but won’t be completed until next month at the earliest, has aroused concerns that Taiwan’s media are being concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy business groups with close connections to China.
The NT$17.5 billion (US$600 million) deal faces reviews by several government bodies, including the FTC, which held its first hearing on the issue Thursday morning.
About 300 opponents of the takeover, including students who held an overnight sit-in earlier in the week, appeared outside the hearing to make their opposition known. They were joined by several prominent Taiwanese film directors, including Yang Ya-che, the maker of “GF*BF,” the movie which won Gwei Lun-mei the best female actress prize at last weekend’s Golden Horse Awards.
He used a piece of dialogue from his movie to encourage the crowds. “When one person dances alone, it’s called a ‘revolt,’ when the whole school dances together, it’s called ‘public opinion,’” he said.
The protesters said the FTC should present its criteria for judging the Next Media takeover within two weeks and then reject the present deal within 30 days after receiving the review application.
Next Media Group founder and chairman Jimmy Lai concluded an agreement this week to sell the Taiwanese versions of the Apple Daily, Next Magazine, Sharp Daily and Next TV to a business alliance led by Chinatrust Charity Foundation Chairman Jeffrey Koo Jr., Formosa Plastics Group Chairman Wang Wen-yuan and Want Want China Times Group Chairman Tsai Eng-meng.
In order to address concerns by the public and by the Financial Supervisory Commission, Tsai stayed out of the Next TV transaction, while he appointed his son Tsai Shao-chung to participate in the takeover of the printed media.
Taiwan Fire and Marine Insurance Co., Ltd. Chairman Lee Tai-hung replaced Tsai in the TV deal, while Lung Yen Life Service Co. Chairman Lee Shih-tsung joined the group to make up for an FSC ban on Koo owning more than 20 percent of the new group. The companies said their chairmen had invested their personal funds and did not represent their businesses.
Critics have accused the government of taking a soft line on the transaction, which they say threatens freedom of the press in Taiwan, in particular because of Tsai’s already large share of the media market and because of his outspoken pro-China views.
In addition to students from 30 schools and colleges, the protests also featured union members from Next Media as well as social, judicial and media reform activists, organizers said.
The FTC said it had sent letters to the five participants in the deal to take note of the relevant regulations. Even before the agreement, the Apple Daily already exceeded a market share of 25 percent for readership and advertising income, making it subject to a review by the FTC, the body said.
The media transaction will also face reviews by the Investment Commission of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and the National Communications Commission.
The opposition Democratic Progressive Party called for a rejection of the Next Media deal as long as there was no legislation in place to prevent monopolization of the media sector. Senior lawmaker Tsai Chi-chang said the party would file a motion in that sense Friday because the merger with Tsai’s group would spell disaster for the country’s media.
DPP legislator Lee Kun-tse warned that with control over more than half the country’s media, the new group would reduce the range of opinions available to the public and attack divergent ideas.
The opposition also followed the Next Media unions’ proposal that employers should first sign a declaration safeguarding the independence of the editorial departments before the government could agree to any media takeovers.
The ruling Kuomintang’s legislative caucus said it was neutral in the case and would respect the decisions of the FTC and the NCC. KMT lawmakers accused the opposition of political motives in trying to stop the Next Media transaction.