UK’s TV regulator can demonstrate how to counter CCP disinformation campaigns

Peter Dahlin, Director, Safeguard Defenders.

With escalating state/party-sponsored disinformation campaigns from China, the lack of media regulation is opening the West to unprecedented attack. The official investigations on China Global Television Network (CGTN) by the UK’s TV regulator Ofcom demonstrates what the West can do in response to CCP’s disinformation campaign. This includes developing a new Magnitsky Act sanctions scheme against individual perpetrators and placing Chinese party media operations under greater scrutiny.

China’s media has undergone a massive re-organisation under Xi Jinping. In 2018, CCTV, the world’s largest media organisation, was transferred from State to direct CCP control. At the same time, the CCP has successfully co-opted hundreds of independent Chinese language media in the West. There is an urgent need to counter CCP’s disinformation campaigns, and the UK is well-placed to do so due to its powerful TV regulator Ofcom. 

Last month in a BBC interview, UK Consulate worker Simon Cheng spoke about his experiences after his mysterious disappearance. A day later, CGTN responded with a broadcast, which was in multiple severe violations of the UK’s Broadcasting code. As a result, Simon, with the help of Safeguard Defenders, filed an official complaint with Ofcom against CGTN.

During his incommunicado detention, Simon was forced to record six ‘confession’ on video, after bouts of torture and solitary confinement. These ‘forced TV confessions’ has become a mainstay over the last years. Victims, often rights defenders, those involved in politically sensitive cases, or foreigners, are paraded on Chinese media confessing to various crimes, long before their trials.  

The practice of ‘forced confession’ is not merely an internal matter in China. Such confessions are routinely broadcast by CGTN across the world. The victims are often foreigners or the crimes alleged related to international affairs. These broadcasts are used as direct foreign policy statements by the CCP. An example is the TV confessions by Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, used to attack Sweden’s right to provide assistance to its citizen.

A year ago, a British citizen and former journalist Peter Humphrey was forced to make several TV confessions while being denied cancer treatment and awaiting trial. He filed a similar complaint to Ofcom, which has led to a currently ongoing official investigation. Since then, another such investigation has been launched, on the broadcasts of Swedish citizen Gui Minhai. Ofcom has also launched investigations for CGTN’s biased reporting on the Hong Kong protests. 

Ofcom found evidence that CGTN had violated the Broadcasting Code in a severe manner, which led to official investigations on matters related to Mr Humphrey and Mr Gui. The UK regulator has taken important steps in launching these investigations into CGTN, and the verdict will have far-reaching consequences. The UK is the base for CGTN’s expansion plans across Europe and setup of a new CGTN Europe division. A guilty verdict will force CGTN to stop these broadcasts as well as to pay greater attention to the UK’s regulations overall. 

UK’s requirement for TV broadcaster licensing sets it apart from many other countries, where such requirements are either missing or very limited. Likewise, the UK’s Broadcasting code is unique in its detail. There are clearly spelled out and easy to use complaints mechanisms. This is not the case in most other western countries. 

At the same time, Safeguard Defenders are filing CCTV personnel directly involved in extracting, recording and producing such ‘confessions’ for Magnitsky sanctions, a law aimed at going after individuals who perpetrate gross human rights violations. 

Through Ofcom, the UK can continue to demonstrate the way forward by ensuring consistent enforcement of existing rules. The UK also needs to ensure that once its Magnitsky Act procedures are finalised, it gives civil society a channel for filing such recommendations for sanctions, and move towards regular enforcement.

However, the UK could do more. It can place greater scrutiny of staff hires by Chinese media organisations in the UK, to prevent these entities from hosting Ministry of State Security agents. It can also enact legislation similar to the U.S.’s Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), to force disclosure of staff and financing by those entities that are deemed to be operating in the UK under control of a foreign government.