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Talk of the Day -- Human rights report warns against media convergence

2012/04/20 21:55:32

Taiwan's government has expressed concern about the increasing concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few business conglomerates.

The issue was mentioned in the country's first-ever human rights report released Friday, which said business groups' use of their financial clout to increase their dominance of mass media could lead to the excessive concentration of media ownership in a few hands.

"The trend of cash rich conglomerates increasing their media ownership could lead to negative results," the report said without further elaboration.

The passage was seen as referring to a bid by Want Want China Broadband -- a Want Want Group subsidiary -- to acquire China Network Systems -- Taiwan's second largest multiple system operator.

President Ma Ying-jeou, who presided over a news conference in connection with the release of the human rights report, did not answer questions about his administration's stance on the merger bid.

Vice President Vincent Siew, who heads the panel that authored the 300,000-word human rights report, explained on Ma's behalf that the human rights report mentions issues related to news media operations and information circulation because they are covered in two U.N. human rights covenants --the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

"The Want Want-China Network Systems merger proposal, however, was not touched on during the drafting of the human rights report," Siew said.

The following are excerpts from a special report in the Friday edition of the United Evening News on the media ownership concentration issue:

Peng Kun-yeh, director of the Department of Legal Affairs under the Ministry of Justice, said human rights report panelists did not discuss any specific media merger cases while the report was being drafted.

"The panelists just discussed how to protect freedom of expression and the free flow of information," Peng said.

The issue of financial conglomerates buying into media outlets was not included in the initial version of the human rights report, Peng said, adding that it was included in the final edition completed in February this year based on repeated requests by some scholars and social activists.

Some observers expressed regret over the inclusion of the section in the report as the statement seemed to hint that the government is opposed to the Want Want-China Network Systems merger.

"If the government has already adopted such a stance, how can we expect the National Communications Commission (NCC) to screen the case fairly or impartially," said a journalism professor who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Political interference in business mergers could also impair Taiwan's human rights image in the international community, he added.

The case was filed with the NCC, the country's media regulator, more than a year ago. As the Want Want Group already owns several print and electronic media outlets, its buyout plan has been seen as a move to further expand its media dominance as China Network Systems serves about one-third of Taiwan's cable TV subscribers.

Given the Wang Want Group's close business ties with China, some scholars and political activists have voiced strong opposition to the acquisition on the grounds that the proposed merger could enhance Want Want's clout in airing pro-China rhetoric.

The NCC is scheduled to hold a new round of hearings on the case in the first half of May, during which Want Want Group Chairman Tsai Eng-meng is expected to answer questions in person. The proceedings will be broadcast live on the Internet.

The hearings will address such issues as whether or not fair competition between the media, public interests and the rights and interests of consumers will be compromised and a possible concentration of the opinion apparatus in the hands of a few.

If Want Want China Broadband succeeds in acquiring China NetworkSystems, Taiwan's cable television business will be dominated by two local conglomerates -- Fubon Group, which has taken over KBRO, and Want Want Group -- and one foreign-owned company -- Taiwan Broadband Corp.

NCC officials said that as they have not yet received the new human rights report, they still cannot comment on how to follow the government's policy direction in addressing the issue. (April 20, 2012).

(By Sofia Wu)