Demonstrators protesting the proposed sale of Next Media group in Taiwan… (Wally Santana / Associated…)
TAIPEI, Taiwan — The proposed sale of an irreverent media empire in Taiwan to a consortium heavily invested in mainland China is sparking protests by Taiwanese worried that Beijing will quash its tradition of free speech.
Next Media, known for racy animated graphics poking fun at the Chinese Communist Party, as well as figures such as Mitt Romney and Tiger Woods, signed a deal this week to sell Apple Daily newspaper, one of Taiwan's largest dailies, two other print products and a fledgling television station to the consortium. One of the buyers is linked to a Taiwanese media tycoon famous for his pro-Beijing views.
The proposed $600-million sale, which requires approval by Taiwanese regulators, drew hundreds of demonstrators, many of them students, artists and filmmakers who want Taiwanese authorities to intervene. Demonstrators said they worry that the buyers will overhaul Next Media's news content to favor Beijing politically.
"You're going, of course, to see some kind of cooperation across their lines of business," said Huang Tzu-hao, a 30-year-old artist who was outside the legislature Thursday.
Increased Chinese influence over local media would further test Taiwan's separation from China. The two sides have already signed a series of trade-related deals since 2008, tightening the island's ties to the massive mainland economy.
China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949, but the mainland continues to see the island as part of its territory and insists they will eventually reunify.
Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai, who is looking to sell his Taiwanese holdings, brought Next Media to Taiwan about a decade ago. Since then, his news outlets have gained a following with bloody front-page accident photos, televised weather reports that feature women dancing to disco tracks and magazine exposes that slice across Taiwan's domestic political divide.
Apple Daily revels in reporting salacious political scandals that are taboo in the mainland media. Next Media also produced biting satires — popularized worldwide via YouTube — that often take on the Chinese Communist Party, featuring a thuggish panda bear who wears a Chinese army cap. A recent spoof on the 18th Communist Party congress showed television viewers snoozing while a bored child threw an egg at the TV set.
Taiwan also has cable TV channels and mainstream daily newspapers on opposite sides of the local political spectrum.
"Next Media has influenced Taiwan … and it also stimulated the industry and gave people different choices," said Melvin Tan, a public television news anchor in Taipei, the capital.
Next Media said it had lost more than $200 million on Taiwanese television holdings. The group decided to sell for $600 million because it felt that Taiwanese broadcast regulators had held back its expansion by issuing one license, not the three required to meet its goals.
"The government stalled us over three years over really nonsensical issues, essentially more about political control over our newspaper, our magazines and a small cable channel," said Mark Simon, Next Media's commercial director. "So the television part just became unviable economically."
Protesters say audiences should brace for a change of news coverage, though Next Media buyers have said they would not interfere.
One of the buyers is the son of Tsai Eng-meng, the billionaire chairman of the Want Want China Times Group, which already owns the pro-Beijing China Times and other media. Analysts say the family would control a third to half of Taiwan's media market if the deal goes through.
Tsai, who made a fortune selling rice crackers to China, caused a stir last year when he said in an interview with the Washington Post that "not that many people could really have died" during the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators at Beijing's Tiananmen Square. He later apologized.
Critics of the sale also charge that a second buyer of Next Media, Formosa Plastics Group Chairman William Wong, may squelch coverage of a petrochemicals factory that has prompted complaints in Taiwan about air pollution.
"This media group is going to be huge after the sale and could have up to a third of Taiwan's media market, so it will have control over expression," said Leonard Chu, a communications studies professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei. "From the perspective of political psychology, this worry is not without its foundation."
The Next Media sale requires the approval of three Taiwanese regulatory agencies. Cabinet spokeswoman Cheng Li-wun said Thursday that the government had not taken a position on the new ownership.
In a report last year, the U.S.-based advocacy group Freedom House warned that commercial ties between China and Taiwan "raised concerns that media owners and some journalists were whitewashing news about China to protect their financial interests."
Jennings is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Barbara Demick in Beijing contributed to this report.