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March 8, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:06am

Ofcom fines Chinese state broadcaster CGTN £225,000 for biased Hong Kong protest coverage and airing forced confession

By Charlotte Tobitt

Ofcom has fined Chinese state broadcaster CGTN a total of £225,000 for breaching fairness, privacy and due impartiality requirements in its news broadcasting.

It imposed a £125,000 financial penalty for four editions of The World Today and one of China 24 in 2019 which were not duly impartial in their reporting of protests in Hong Kong against Government plans to allow extradition to mainland China.

The regulator separately imposed a penalty of £100,000 on the broadcaster for two programmes which aired in 2013 and 2014 while it was still named CCTV News.

The fine relates to a report on the China 24 programme that included footage of jailed British citizen Peter Humphrey appearing to confess to a criminal offence, and to a follow-up report on News Hour that featured footage of him appearing to apologise.

Both fines were “appropriate and proportionate in the circumstances” because of the seriousness of the breaches, Ofcom said.

Ofcom revoked English-language CGTN’s licence last month after discovering its licence-holder held no editorial responsibility for its content and that it wanted to formally transfer the licence to an entity controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.

[Read more: China bans BBC World News TV channel in response to Ofcom ban on China Global TV]

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Ofcom has also ruled on two more “serious” breaches of the Broadcasting Code for which it is considering further sanctions, both relating to the privacy of detainees in China of whom footage filmed inside detention centres was shown without their consent.

Hong Kong coverage

CGTN argued the breaches of the Broadcasting Code within its Hong Kong coverage were not “sufficiently serious” to warrant a sanction.

It said Ofcom “must take into account the exceptional practical challenges faced by the channel in covering this major, fast-moving story” including the fact protesters were reluctant to be interviewed as they were “hostile to the media from the Chinese mainland and to Mandarin-speaking reporters”.

It also argued it had “invested considerable time and effort in training” to meet its impartiality requirements since Ofcom first began its investigation and that until then it had “an almost clean record”.

But Ofcom said the breaches were “serious and repeated” over a short period of time and that CGTN needs to meet impartiality requirements even though its audience expects it to approach topics from a Chinese perspective.

Peter Humphrey forced confession

Ofcom has previously ruled the use of Humphrey’s confessions breached Rule 7.1 of the Broadcasting Code, telling broadcasters to avoid “unjust or unfair treatment” of people, and Rule 8.1, which says any infringement of privacy must be warranted.

Arguing against the sanction, CGTN’s licensee Star China Media said Humphrey had waited more than three years after his release from prison before complaining to Ofcom, and that if he did not consider it so serious as to warrant lodging a prompt complaint then it would be “wrong and disproportionate” for Ofcom to find it serious enough for a financial penalty.

The broadcaster also argued Ofcom had not sufficiently taken into account the substantial public interest in Humphrey’s case and that only a very small amount of footage (eight seconds and 30 seconds respectively) was used in each programme with his face obscured to illustrate what he had said.

It said it has since pledged not to air pre-trial confessions in the UK again unless they are clearly in the public interest.

[Read more: Ofcom to investigate claim Chinese state broadcaster aired forced confession on UK TV]

In its decision, Ofcom noted Humphrey had been detained until June 2015 and receiving medical treatment for physical and mental health conditions until mid-2018, after which he made his complaint.

Ofcom said it “did not consider that the mere fact the complaint related to broadcasts made a number of years ago, nor the fact there had been a delay in the submission of Mr Humphrey’s complaint, lessened the potential impact of the broadcasts on Mr Humphrey’s reputation or altered in any way the sensitivity of the statements made by Mr Humphrey in the interviews at the time of broadcast, which did have the potential to cause serious harm to Mr Humphrey”.

The regulator said the breaches were particularly serious because the footage showed him disclosing highly sensitive information “in a manner that would have led viewers to have gained the impression that he had made a genuine, voluntary statement on the basis of which it was safe to conclude he had committed offences”. But the footage was filmed when he was detained, likely to be feeling vulnerable and still pending a criminal trial.

CGTN did not take sufficient steps to obtain Humphrey’s informed consent before he was filmed and he may have felt that not taking part in the second interview would have led to a worse outcome at his trial, Ofcom said.

It added that the broadcaster did not include facts that would have cast significant doubt on both his guilt and whether his statements were made voluntarily.

Although CGTN is no longer airing in the UK, Ofcom said it wanted the cases to act as a wider deterrent against non-compliance in general.

Picture: Reuters/Jorge Silva

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