Treaty Loophole Could Allow Chinese State Broadcaster to Return to UK Airwaves

By Author: Prakash Gogoi
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cgtn chinese state broadcaster coming back to uk
Communist China’s channel CGTN could return to the UK because of an agreement loophole. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

In February, British broadcasting regulator Ofcom banned the state-run China Global Television Network (CGTN) for breaching the UK’s rules of broadcast. Now, it seems as if the media outlet might get back on British airwaves by taking advantage of a loophole in a treaty signed by the 47-member Council of Europe. As it is distinct from the European Union, the Brexit fallout does not affect the treaties signed by the member states of the organization.

According to the treaty, an international broadcaster has the right to beam content into the signatories’ territories as long as it falls under the jurisdiction of at least one member state. Both UK and France are signatories of the treaty. And CGTN falls within the jurisdiction of France. “This means that CGTN may broadcast in France and other countries signed up to the [European Convention on Transfrontier Television], including the UK, subject to oversight by the French regulator,” Ofcom told the Financial Times.

Unlike Britain, France does not have rules that prohibit foreign government media outlets from broadcasting in the country, which is what basically opens the door for CGTN to make a comeback. However, broadcasters have yet to consider allowing CGTN to be aired in Britain in compliance with the treaty. 

For instance, satellite broadcaster Freesat stated that no discussion about the future of the channel on their platform has been made. Broadcaster Sky said that they have not received any requests for putting back CGTN in the UK. Sky carries the Chinese network in countries like Germany and Italy.

Opposition to CGTN broadcaster license

Human rights watchdog Safeguard Defenders published a letter from 13 people who said they were forced to make confessions on Chinese television. The letter asks European satellite operator Eutelsat to reconsider their decision of carrying Chinese propaganda channels like CGTN and CCTV that have apparently broadcast such forced confessions.

The signatories include Chinese human rights lawyers, Jiang Tianyong and Bao Longjun, former British consulate staffer in Hong Kong, Simon Cheng, and co-founder of Safeguard Defenders, Peter Dahlin. All of them have been abused by Chinese authorities at some point. In addition, the daughter of author Gui Minhai, who was sentenced by a Chinese court to 10 years in prison last year, signed the letter representing her father.

“We are asking you… to determine whether television providers in democratic societies ought to continue to be morally complicit in the broadcast of information that is intentionally twisted and obtained through torture… We are only a dozen victims able to speak out… Many other victims are in prison. A few have been executed… The victims have no way of demanding reparations. The only way to stop this is for television regulators to investigate and take measures,” the group stated in the letter.

Safeguard Defenders also sent a complaint to French TV regulator CSA due to a recent broadcast on the channel about the Uyghur people in Xinjiang. Last month, it was reported that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was separating Uyghur children from their parents. An earlier report by Amnesty International had stated that the communist regime’s minority policy was preventing thousands of Uyghur parents living abroad from reuniting with their kids back in China. 

CGTN eventually published a video rubbishing a claim by CNN that an Uyghur man living in Australia was forcefully cut off from his family. The video contained forced statements from a 10-year-old girl who spoke against her parents.

The UK ban and aftereffects

UK regulator Ofcom had revoked the license of CGTN after it came to light that the network was “ultimately controlled by the Chinese Communist Party” which violated broadcasting laws of the country that prohibits licenses for media outlets controlled by political entities. 

Safeguard Defenders had pointed out CGTN’s practice of airing forced confessions violated Ofcom rules mandating that reporting be accurate and impartial. British journalist Peter Humphrey, who was forced to confess while in China, lauded the decision as a moment of triumph.

“Seeing the licence revoked today is a moment of triumph, not only for me, but also for all the other victims of this type of abuse… It’s a slap on the face for the dictatorship in Beijing…. During that time, we were subjected twice to forced confession appearances on Chinese television, which were broadcast by CGTN and CCTV, and those two broadcasters are actively involved in extracting and packaging that material,” Humphrey said to The Epoch Times

Following the license revocation, China banned UK broadcaster BBC World News from operating in the communist nation citing content violation and undermining the country’s “national interests and ethnic solidarity. 

In March, Ofcom charged CGTN with £225,000 ($309,895) in fines for biased coverage of the Hong Kong protests as well as for airing forced confessions. By being biased against Hong Kong protestors, CGTN had failed in adhering to the guidelines of “due impartiality.” Chinese foreign spokesman Zhao Lijian criticized the fines and had warned about “necessary countermeasures.”

Earlier this month, UK and the European Union expressed their concerns about media freedom in China after two journalists were forced to leave China in late March. The two journalists, who are a couple, work for BBC and the Irish broadcaster RTE. They shifted to Taiwan on March 23rd after the husband was severely harassed by officials. He had been covering issues related to Xinjiang, which Beijing considers an extremely sensitive topic that should only be discussed positively on international platforms.

He was only given short visas of one, three, or six months. After Ofcom revoked CGTN’s license, he started facing intensified threats. Officials were apparently preparing to sue journalists from BBC with legal measures that included exit bans. Realizing that things were getting too hot on the ground, the couple left China before getting thrown in jail. 

US investigation

Safeguard Defenders has also contacted the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), requesting it to investigate Chinese state-backed media for broadcasting fake news in America. A complaint was filed in this regard by the organization back in 2019 together with evidence that apparently showed “systematic airing of lies and distortions.” 

The organization renewed its calls for a probe by the FCC in March last month. The FCC is said to be reviewing the complaint which includes testimonies from people who were forced into making confession videos.

“In an age of increased disinformation by state actors, especially those hostile to the United States, a regulatory body such as the FCC is legally and morally duty-bound to investigate such violations. Where found to have been committed, appropriate punitive action must be taken against all abuses. With this letter, we therefore call on the FCC to formally acknowledge receipt of our complaint, to conscientiously assess the evidence, and to undertake an appropriate formal investigation of these allegations,” according to the letter.

In March last year, the Trump administration had designated five Chinese media entities, including CGTN, as “foreign missions.” Washington had accused the Chinese outlets of not being in the business of providing real news but in fact spreading the CCP’s propaganda narratives.