This week, European broadcasts of China’s global television network CGTN came under attack because of the network’s coverage of the situation in Xinjiang. Two months ago, CGTN lost its UK broadcasting licence. Will Paris soon follow London’s lead?
On 5 April, Safeguard Defenders, a human rights group registered in Spain, formally complained to the French TV regulator CSA about the China Global Television Network (CGTN).
Directly triggering the complaint was the Chinese reaction, in the form of a CGTN broadcast, to a CNN report on Xinjiang. In March, the US cable network had published a detailed investigation tracing children who were separated from their families as a result of Beijing’s ongoing crackdown against the Muslim Uyghur population in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.
The documentary added flesh to the Amnesty International report entitled The nightmare of Uyghur families separated by repression, published earlier that month, which claimed that Beijing’s minority policy prevents “thousands” of Uyghur parents from returning to China “to take care of their children themselves and made it nearly impossible for their children to leave China to reunite with them abroad”.
CNN journalists flew to Xinjiang after talking to Mamutjan Abdurehim, a Uyghur man from Kashgar in the far west of the region. He currently lives in Adelaide, Australia.
Abdurehim told the reporters that he hadn’t seen his wife and children for five years after his wife, Muharram Ablat, lost her passport when the couple was in Malaysia in 2015. She was told by Chinese authorities that she could renew it only if she went back to her hometown – after which she was prevented from leaving China.
On 23 March, CGTN reacted with its own report about “Xinjiang human rights” called “Uygur family disturbed by CNN reporters asks son to come home” claiming that the children live a “simple and happy life” with their grandparents. The CGTN report added that the mother, Muharram, “was arrested on “suspicion of provoking ethnic hatred in 2019.” And since then, the two children have been left to stay between their paternal and maternal grandparents.” The Chinese report ends with a plea from Abdurehim’s parents for him to come home.
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The CGTN report caused concern because it involves “forced statements by a 10-year-old girl against her parents, against her father,” resulting in “defamation and falsehoods,” Laura Hardt, campaign director with Safeguard Defenders told RFI. “It is CCP propaganda, that is really rampant, especially on CGTN.”
Man with the million
Safeguard Defenders also complained to the French broadcast regulators about a CGTN report viciously attacking German researcher Adrian Zenz. Zenz was nicknamed “The man with the million” by German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung because the widely cited number of one million Uyghurs allegedly being detained in Xinjiang re-education camps was initially based on his research – making him in particular the focus of Beijing’s ire. He has since been described as a “pseudo-scholar” whose “lies” cause “economic and reputational loss”.
Zenz’s detailed 2018 publication “Thoroughly reforming them towards a healthy heart attitude” triggered massive international criticism of Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs and was supported by leaks of official documents, eyewitness accounts and many human rights reports exposing the Chinese governnment’s abuse of power in Xinjiang.
Human Rights Watch criticised Beijing’s “algorithms of repression” and the organisation was joined by many others – culminating in the US and other countries accusing Beijing of “genocide” as a result of its Xinjiang policy. Last month, the EU imposed sanctions on selected Chinese officials and institutions.
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The offending CGTN report, which calls Zenz a “religious extremist” relentlessly tries to debunk conclusions of his research in lengthy interviews with Max Blumenthal, founder of the far-left blog Grayzone and a regular guest of Russian propaganda channels RT and Sputnik, as well as with three Chinese commentators.
Unacceptable, says Safeguard Defenders, which rejects the CGTN report as one-sided. “We denounced this practice and we asked a right to reply for Mr. Zenz on CGTN as this is a firmly guaranteed right under the European legal framework for television broadcasting.”
But the growing European displeasure with CGTN is not merely about blunt pro-China propaganda, defamation and the lack of ‘right to reply’. Relentless criticism of the Chinese broadcaster spearheaded by Safeguard Defenders succesfully had it ejected from the UK on different grounds.
The main argument: CGTN broadcasts ‘televised confessions’ of people Chinese authorities perceive as ‘criminals’ to a million-strong public. Notorious examples are the “confession” of Peter Humphrey, a British consultant who spent almost two years in Shanghai jails, accused of “illegally obtaining data on Chinese citizens”.
Peter Dahlin, founder of Safeguard Defenders, who was helping uncertified lawyers in China to provide legal aid in rural areas, was detained and accused of involvement in an “illegal organisation jeopardising China’s national security,” then was forced to “confess” his “crimes” on CGTN.
Mounting complaints against CGTN eventually resulted in UK regulator Ofcom deciding to withdraw the CGTN broadcast licence on 4 February after investigation found that the company was in the hands of “a body which is ultimately controlled by the Chinese Communist Party,” which is forbidden by regulations that ban licence holders being controlled “by political bodies”.
Beijing denounced the decision as “political manipulation” but had already obtained a license via French regulator CSA to continue the broadcasts into Europe. In a notice published on 3 March, CSA gave as its prime reason that CGTN approached the French regulator because of “Brexit” although the UK licence revocation was mentioned as well.
In a reaction to Safeguard Defenders’ complaints against CGTN, the broadcaster’s website has issued a vitriolic response. Calling Dahlin, Safeguard Defenders’ founder, an “anti-China crusader” who “points his swords at CGTN,” reproaching the organisation’s “hypocrisy” and calling it “the true scoundrel here,” accusing it of actions which “reflect the obsession of its leader”.
The article then recounts the Chinese version of how Dahlin was “arrested in China back in 2016 for colluding with foreign forces to subvert China’s national security,” calling the forced, televised confession that followed a “temporary feigning of sincerity and introspection to get himself out of China’s jurisdiction.” Today, after succesfully contributing to the cancellation of CGTN’s broadcast licence in UK, Dahlin “clearly aims at achieving a similar feat in France and the US, where CGTN still operates.”
French satellite company under attack
Undeterred, Safeguard Defenders, which is also targeting Eutelsat, the French satellite company that, since 2016, has provided network logistics for the CGTN broadcasts, hopes that CSA “will officially open an investigation” and that the concerns can be lifted to a “European level”.
“This is about China trying to impose its rules within our jurisdictions,” says Laura Hardt of Safeguard Defenders. But she is optimistic, as the CSA notice said it will “be particularly vigilant that CGTN ensures that ( ) legal requirements are met,” pointing out that the 1986 Freedom of Communication Act prohibits “incitement to hatred and violence and guarantees respect for human dignity.”
And the regulatory body warns that “serious breaches of some of these principles have already led the CSA to ask Eutelsat to stop broadcasting non-European channels,” ironically including New Tang Dynasty TV, an anti-Beijing channel linked to the Falun Gong meditation movement, which Eutelsat banned in 2005 . . . at the request of the Chinese government.