The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why it’s time to start regulating Chinese TV in the West

Women walk by a TV screen showing documentary footage of Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Beijing railway station on Nov. 16, 2017. (Andy Wong/AP)

Peter Dahlin is director of Safeguard Defenders, a human rights nongovernmental organization that works to promote and protect rule of law in Asia, and editor of “Trial By Media,” a book on the global expansion of Chinese media.

“They drugged me, locked me to a [steel] chair, and placed me and the chair inside a small metal cage. China Central Television (CCTV) journalists then aimed their cameras at me and recorded me reading out the answers already prepared for me by the police. No questions were asked.” So said British citizen and former Reuters journalist Peter Humphrey about being forced, long before his trial, to “confess” in front of journalists from China’s state TV broadcaster. His scripted “confession,” related to a charge of illegally collecting personal information on Chinese citizens, was orchestrated by the police and then broadcast, both in Chinese and in English, by both CCTV and its international arm, now called China Global Television Network (CGTN).

Until recently, Chinese television — including its international arm — has been allowed to operate seemingly without scrutiny or limitations in North America, Europe and the rest of the world. The U.S. Justice Department recently announced, however, that the Foreign Agents Registration Act will be applied to CGTN in the United States. This is a long-awaited but very welcome move forward. Such increased scrutiny is a first but important step toward pressuring CCTV and CGTN to stop partaking in gross human rights violations.

Last month, Humphrey filed an exhaustive complaint to Britain’s broadcasting regulator, claiming that Chinese television has aired broadcasts within Britain that severely violated the British Broadcasting Code. My organization, Safeguard Defenders, helped him register that complaint. I founded the group after going through an experience in China very similar to Humphrey’s — one in which I, too, was forced to make a televised confession from the secret prison in which I was being held. A longtime Beijing-based NGO worker, I was baselessly accused of harming national security — much like the two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, currently in custody as part of China’s widening retaliation against the arrest of one of its leading corporate executives in Canada. (China just announced that it has detained a third Canadian.) Like them, I was also detained by China’s Ministry of State Security.

The United States is one of several countries — including Canada, Britain and Sweden — whose citizens have been subject to these forced TV confessions, which, when broadcast internationally, violate many countries’ broadcasting regulations. CCTV4 alone has broadcast at least 27 such forced TV confessions, several of them also aired in English through CGTN. American victims are among the victims. Humphrey’s wife, an American, was also forced to make such a confession. American financier Charles Xue was forced to make not one, or two, but three separate “confessions,” two of which were broadcast in the U.S.

This year Safeguard Defenders released a report, the first of its kind, scrutinizing these forced TV confessions. The report shed light on what happens before these confessions are agreed to by their victims, which often includes prolonged solitary confinement, being held incommunicado, and, very often, extensive torture. It also showed that, since this phenomenon came to the fore with the rise of Xi Jinping, many victims have been lawyers, rights defenders, journalists and NGO workers — people who the Chinese Communist Party fears might challenge the status quo.

Freedom of speech should apply equally to all of us. To be sure, even though Chinese state media outlets are airing pure propaganda, we should not subject them to censorship. Yet we must keep them under close scrutiny and take appropriate action when their work violates broadcasting rules, due process and human rights laws.

Under the name Voice of China, CCTV is poised to ramp up operations and broadcasts around the world, an important step in its push for broader influence. This expansion is occurring alongside the rapid co-opting and silencing of independent Chinese-language media in the United States, which are now already under partial Chinese Communist Party control. And that, in turn, is merely part of a larger strategy that encompasses espionage operations, strategic investments in media, and the development of Confucius Institutes.

Regulatory action, limited in scope but tailored to counter specific violations of our established rules, should aim at bringing forced TV confessions to an end. We must protect victims' rights to a fair trial from assault by Chinese television. Such action will also serve the larger purpose of countering Chinese influence operations in the United States, Britain and beyond. It is high time for American broadcast regulators to start paying greater attention to Chinese television and its operations in the United States.

Read more:

Donald Clarke: China is holding two Canadians as hostages. It’s not even denying it.

The Post’s View: Trump shouldn’t be negotiating U.S. criminal prosecutions with China

Josh Rogin: Preventing Chinese espionage at America’s universities

John Pomfret: The furor over the Confucius Institutes is distracting from real Chinese threats

David Ignatius: China’s fingerprints are everywhere

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