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UK regulator revokes license for China-backed broadcaster

The revocation is likely to heighten tensions between Britain and China, which have already been strained over Britain’s decisions to suspend an extradition treaty with Hong Kong.

By: New York Times | London |
February 5, 2021 1:44:02 pm
The news prompted questions about whether British journalists in mainland China would face retaliation, with some users on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, calling for the government to retaliate by ousting journalists for the BBC. (Photographer: Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images)

Written by Isabella Kwai

Britain’s broadcasting regulator said Thursday that it had withdrawn the license for China Global Television Network, an international news channel owned by a Chinese state broadcaster, to operate in the United Kingdom in part because its affiliation with the Chinese Communist Party violates broadcasting laws.

License holders must have editorial oversight over their content and cannot be controlled by political bodies, and the regulator, Ofcom, said the outlet had failed on both counts.

The revocation is likely to heighten tensions between Britain and China, which have already been strained over Britain’s decisions to suspend an extradition treaty with Hong Kong and grant visas to potentially millions of Hong Kongers after Beijing imposed a security law to crack down on dissent in the former British colony.

“The decision by Ofcom sends a strong signal that U.K. regulations apply equally to all,” said Safeguard Defenders, a human rights group that filed the complaint against CGTN, adding that the network was pivotal to the Communist Party’s “planned expansion of soft power and influence in Europe.”

Ofcom’s ruling followed a monthslong investigation during which the regulator said it had raised concerns that the channel’s license holder, Star China Media Limited, did not have oversight of CGTN’s programming. The regulator said that those that most likely controlled programming, including state-media network China Central Television, or CCTV, which owns CGTN, would be disqualified from holding a license because of affiliations with the Chinese Communist Party.

In response, CGTN said it would transfer the license to a corporation under the CGTN name.

But an application submitted in September was incomplete, Ofcom said, and a reorganization of the shares and a change in the control of the corporation did not appear to have happened. According to Ofcom, CGTN argued against the revocation, saying that its coverage was editorially independent and compared itself to broadcasters like the BBC, France Télévisions and Japan’s NHK.

Ofcom said it had given CGTN “significant time” to comply with the rules. But because CGTN had not provided enough evidence in its application, it remained “ultimately controlled by the Chinese Communist Party,” Ofcom said. “We now consider it appropriate to withdraw the license for CGTN to broadcast in the U.K.”

“This is a very strong gesture from the U.K. toward China,” said Peter Humphrey, whose complaint against CCTV for airing forced confessions while he was detained in China in 2013 was upheld by Ofcom last year. “In China the CCP and its political leaders stand above the law,” he said, referring to the Chinese Communist Party. “Here it is different.”

The news prompted questions about whether British journalists in mainland China would face retaliation, with some users on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, calling for the government to retaliate by ousting journalists for the BBC.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued its own complaint against the BBC late Thursday, shortly after the Ofcom decision was released, saying it “reserved the right to take further action” against the British broadcaster.

The ministry said on its website that a report aired by the BBC late last month about China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic was “fake news” that, among other things, falsely depicted footage of a Chinese anti-terrorism exercise as brutal pandemic control measures. The statement said the BBC should “stop maliciously maligning and attacking China, and abide by professional morals.”

The move by Ofcom was a signal that Britain is aligning itself with the United States as both countries’ relations with China deteriorate, said Kerry Brown, a former British diplomat and an associate fellow at Chatham House, a British research institute.

Both countries have feuded with China over media issues.

The Trump administration declared Chinese news agencies like CGTN operatives of the Chinese state, limiting the number of employees they could have. China in turn expelled American journalists working for several outlets, including The New York Times.

In Britain, although CGTN did not have a wide audience, the outlet enjoyed freedoms accorded to all media in Britain. British media in China, however, have faced barriers to their reporting for many years, said Brown. “It’s an expression of reciprocity,” he said, although “it will be seen in China as a hostile move.”

The decision was “historically significant,” and a “justice is finally served,” said Simon Cheng, a former employee of the British Consulate in Hong Kong who said Chinese security officers tortured him in 2019 and forced him to confess to soliciting prostitution.

Cheng, who was given asylum in Britain last year, filed a complaint with Ofcom after CGTN published the confession on its website. “It is clear that the mouthpiece of CCP totalitarian regime will no longer have a foothold in the UK,” he said in a statement posted on Facebook.

Last year, the British regulator found that the network had breached rules over impartiality, fairness and privacy in its coverage of pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong. It added Thursday that a decision was expected soon on possible sanctions over that breach and others. The BBC’s website has been blocked in China in some fashion since 2014.

The regulator also feuded with Russian broadcaster RT in 2019, fining it about $273,000 over breaches of impartiality in its coverage.

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