Taiwan blocks anti-media monopoly bill, raising fears for press freedom

TAIPEI (REUTERS) - Taiwan's ruling party has blocked an anti-media monopoly bill that could have derailed a deal to put nearly half of the island's print and television operations in the hands of a group of pro-mainland China businessmen.

Next Media Ltd, owned by Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai, signed a deal in November with five Taiwan tycoons to sell its Taiwan print and TV assets for NT$17.5 billion (S$727 million), sparking fears that the agreement with pro-mainland forces could spell trouble for press freedom on the island.

In an about-turn on Friday, the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) rejected the anti-monopoly media law proposed by Taiwan's major opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), a move that is expected to swell numbers at a rally planned for Sunday against mainland-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou.

"We ask the government to stop treating people like fools and losing its own credibility," Ms Chen Hsiao-yi, president of Association of Taiwan Journalists, said in a statement.

Scores of demonstrations have erupted with protesters voicing concern over the proposed Next Media deal on fears of growing mainland influence in Taiwan's media at a time when cross-strait ties are at their warmest in more than six decades.

Beijing has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since 1949, when Mao Zedong's forces won the Chinese civil war and Chiang Kai-shek's KMT fled to the island.

The "Fury Mass Rally" organised for this weekend by the DPP would be the first major protest against Taiwan's leader since he was re-elected last year, with anti-government demonstrators also using it to call on the government to reject the sale of Next Media's Taiwan assets.

"People will be even more furious now," said Ms Yeh Yijin, a legislator at the pro-independent DPP. "Again and again, we feel the Chinese interference (in Taiwan media). We are very worried."

The proposed anti-media monopoly amendment took a surprising turn after the broadcasting regulatory authority called a rare news conference late on Thursday to express its disapproval.

The regulatory authority has said it will unveil a draft act regulating cross-media ownership in March, according to local media reports.

The print part of the deal still needs approval from the Free Trade Commission.

Among the Taiwan buyers are Want Want China Times Group President Tsai Shao-Chung, son of Want Want China Holdings Ltd chairman Tsai Eng-meng, who has close ties with China.

Mr Tsai's family already owns two TV stations, three newspapers and nearly one-third of cable network in Taiwan.

Mr Tsai owns one of the largest food companies in China and was named as Taiwan's richest man in 2012 by Forbes magazine. His office declined to comment when contacted by Reuters.

The DPP said more than 100,000 people were expected to take part in the rally on Sunday.

Shares of Hong Kong-listed Next Media dropped 5 per cent on Friday, lagging a 0.4 per cent loss in the benchmark Hang Seng Index.