Bizarrely, when it comes to reigning in this particular brutal Chinese regime, Ofcom has unprecedented powerby Olivia Utley / January 23, 2019 / Leave a comment
In the next couple of months, CCTV—Chinese State TV—is set to open the world’s biggest foreign news bureau in Chiswick Park, London. The London hub will be the jewel in the crown of CCTV’s Europe expansion, occupying a 3,000 sq foot building and employing over 300 London-based writers. For demoralised and underpaid UK journalists, the jobs—which offer the opportunity to “tell China’s story well” for a hefty salary—look like glittering opportunities. One department has already had 6,000 applicants for 90 positions, and the deadline isn’t until February.
So, what’s the catch? Well, it’s a big one. CCTV stands accused of assisting the Chinese police in extracting forced and falsified “confessions” in front of its TV cameras. According to Safeguard Defenders, a human rights NGO in Asia, there have been 45 confirmed forced televised confessions in China between 2013 and 2018—but the true figure is thought to be much, much higher. Almost all are aired before a formal conviction, violating Chinese law asserting a presumption of innocence.
Last month, I met Peter Humphrey, a UK citizen who was imprisoned in China in 2013 after being denied a fully public trial and at some points full access to lawyers. He was, he explains, forced to make two such confessions. Since his release five years ago, he has been struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, and the telltale signs are visible when he speaks.
“At 7am the police flooded in, kicking our bedroom door into my face,” he explains. “From that moment on, things moved ruthlessly fast: they ransacked the office, dismissed my staff, separated my wife and me from each other, and both of us from our teenage son Harvey. It would be two years before we were reunited.”
He was cuffed, led away, and flung into a tiny, dank interrogation cell, with twelve other occupants. After days with barely any food or water, he was dragged from his makeshift bed by a prison officer (“prisoners were always interrogated at night, it made them weaker, easier to break”) and asked to “meet the media.”
Confused, disorientated but certain of his innocence, he says he eventually agreed to speak to one or two print journalists in the hope it would help his situation—but refused point blank to be put on camera. He was then forced to drink a glass of something which he later realised contained a sedative and shoved into a large cage. With CCTV cameras rolling, Humphrey says a Chief Inspector, posing as a journalist, read out questions, while a colleague held a piece of paper against the cage with answers written out.
In his drugged and terrified state, Humphrey explains how he “tried to find words which weren’t an admission of guilt, but might satisfy them.” A few months later, the resulting video was broadcast on state TV.
Fast forward six years, and Humphrey, now recovering from the cancer treatment refused to him during his 23-month detention in China, is fighting back. But not through the channels you might expect.
In late November 2018, he filed a complaint to Ofcom, outlining the seven different ways in which the CCTV’s forced confessions programme grossly violated the UK communication regulator’s code of conduct. Ofcom is now deciding whether to launch a full investigation, and last week, Peter Dahlin, a Swedish national who endured similar treatment at the hands of CCTV, piled on the pressure by filing a complaint of its own.
Why target Ofcom and not the Foreign Office? Because, bizarrely, when it comes to reigning in this particular brutal Chinese regime, Ofcom has unprecedented power. CCTV is desperate to become a serious media presence in Europe, so the executives at the top—and probably President Xi himself—are determined that the London expansion goes smoothly. If Ofcom upholds the complaint and revokes the UK license, CCTV will have to vacate it’s shiny new London premises, tail between legs.
Then what? “It’s not about fighting fire with fire” explains Humphrey, “the more Chinese media that takes part in the conversation, the better—and I don’t want to shut CCTV out of UK. What I do I want is to change its behaviour.”
And it looks as though he has a good chance of doing just that. If the license is revoked, CCTV will have two options: either walk away from the London expansion altogether, or go back to the drawing board, abandon the practice of televised forced confessions, and apply again. Given all that hangs on the London hub—and the money invested in it—the latter choice looks more appealing.
Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, the conviction rate in Chinese courts has risen to over 99 per cent. Many of these convictions include forced televised confessions. A strange series of events has given Ofcom, of all institutions, the opportunity to revolutionise the Chinese justice system. Let’s hope it will seize it.
Olivia Utley is Deputy Editor at The Article