A man who says his false confession was aired by Chinese state television is accusing Canadian regulators of not taking seriously a complaint about the conduct of broadcasters whose content is distributed in Canada.
Earlier this week, the British communications services regulator, Ofcom, found that Chinese network CCTV News had violated the country’s broadcasting code for its reports on a confession by a British man in 2013.
A similar complaint was filed with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) late last year. In 28 pages, it documents more than 50 confessions that are believed to be coerced and were aired by Chinese networks in Canada.
But the CRTC has yet to formally respond or to reach out to some of the key people whose confessions were broadcast.
“I’m surprised that the CRTC hasn’t approached me yet – for months. It may hint that they don’t take it seriously,” said Simon Cheng, a Hong Kong man who was working for the British consulate in that city when he was arrested in mainland China. Chinese broadcasters included footage of confessions he made while in police custody. Mr. Cheng says he was forced to confess after being subjected to physical and mental torture.
The broadcast of his confession in late November, 2019, aimed “to discredit and stigmatize me, and try to ruin my credibility of speaking about how I was politically persecuted and tortured,” Mr. Cheng said in an interview.
“My life cannot return to normal as public opinion had been steered to shame my family,” he added. Safety concerns prompted him to cut ties with his family and home, and he fears workplace discrimination by employers “afraid of affecting their business relations with China.”
The CRTC, in an e-mailed response to questions, said it had “received only one complaint related to the issue” and would not comment until it had finished with the complaint. Spokeswoman Patricia Valladao added that while Canadian networks are subject to domestic broadcasting codes, CCTV Canada “is a foreign service. It is not subject to the broadcast codes the way Canadian stations are, but the Commission is examining the complaint.”
The Chinese state broadcasters, however, explicitly promised to “comply with the provisions of the relevant codes that govern Canadian broadcasters” when the CRTC authorized distribution of nine government-owned channels in 2006. Among them are multiple channels operated by central state broadcaster CCTV, one of the pillars of China’s state-run news and propaganda apparatus.
The regulator at the time reviewed hundreds of comments in opposition to the Chinese channels. The CRTC found that CCTV-4 had aired news reports that used abusive language to describe the religious practice of Falun Gong, which is banned in China.
The regulator also received hundreds of supportive comments and ultimately approved the channels, saying they provided an “avenue for Chinese-speaking Canadians to inform themselves of events and developments in China.” But the CRTC said it expected their programming to be “free of abusive comment” and threatened removal if such content aired in Canada.
On Dec. 16, 2019, Safeguard Defenders, an advocacy group, submitted a detailed complaint to the CRTC that documents what it calls forced confessions aired by Chinese networks between 2013 and November, 2019, when the report on Mr. Cheng was broadcast. Two of the confessions involved Canadian citizens.
“Victims are often held incommunicado and for long periods under profound duress,” Safeguard Defenders wrote in the complaint. Those who refuse to confess are “subjected to both mental and physical torture … and in several cases, their children or loved ones are targeted and threatened with harm or arrest.”
The CRTC has made little response to Safeguard Defenders. “So far, we’ve only been told that the matter has been received and is being reviewed by their experts. That’s about it,” said Peter Dahlin, the group’s director. Mr. Dahlin formerly worked as a human-rights advocate and was himself compelled to make a videotaped confession that was broadcast by Chinese state media, including in Canada.
The British finding against the Chinese broadcasters, he said, “should obviously add pressure to have a proper review of this.”
On Monday, Ofcom, the British broadcast regulator, found Chinese broadcasters in “serious” breach of rules regarding unwarranted infringement of privacy and unjust or unfair treatment in a televised program.
“We intend to consider the breach for the imposition of a statutory sanction,” the regulator wrote in a decision. Punishment can range from fines to licence revocation.
The Chinese broadcaster had argued there was strong public interest in reporting on the 2013 case against Peter Humphrey, a British citizen who owned a private investigation firm in China and was found guilty of illegally selling personal data belonging to Chinese nationals. The broadcaster showed copies of letters sent by Mr. Humphrey consenting to be interviewed and said his words appeared voluntary.
Mr. Humphrey responded that “under condition of extreme duress, there can be no informed consent.” He said he was sedated prior to confessing and that the person asking questions during his confession was a police officer rather than a journalist. Ofcom found that the fact “Mr. Humphrey was confessing to offences in advance of trial and in the presence of those holding him in custody was sufficient to create substantial doubt as to whether his consent was genuine and informed.”
The CRTC “has never reached out to me,” Mr. Humphrey said in an interview.
He said he hopes the Ofcom ruling will spur more action.
“I hope governments and regulators will wake up and take action against these barbaric practices,” he said. “Until those so-called media outlets have learned to behave in a civilized way, they do not deserve any licence.”
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