Published 4 May 2018 at CNN, here.
In late April, Chinese Central Television (CCTV) broadcast a video confession by China-born Canadian citizen Chen Zhiheng and his brother.
In the video, the twins denounce a Chinese billionaire, Guo Wengui, currently in the United States where he is seeking political asylum after publicizing allegations of corruption against China’s political elite.
Earlier in April China’s Foreign Ministry had asked Interpol to issue a global arrest warrant for Guo, in turn having accused him of bribery, charges the twins appear to corroborate in their video confession.
It’s hardly a revelation to say Chinese media works with the state to spread domestic propaganda but what is changing is how Chinese media has become increasingly active in China’s foreign policy, and in particular through televised forced confessions.
On World Press Freedom Day, it’s important to state: a free press doesn’t participate in forced confessions.
Forced confessions in China
A new report by human rights group Safeguard Defenders, of which I am a cofounder, details how in the past five years police in China have staged dozens of video confessions, directing every closely scripted detail, from inside secret prisons to hotel rooms, for calculated purposes.
Of the 45 confessions broadcast between 2013 and 2018 analyzed in “Scripted and Staged: Behind the scenes of China’s forced TV confessions,” a similar script emerges.
The individual, often following months of secret detention, confesses to a crime before trial and without having seen a lawyer; denounces friends or coworkers; praises the party for upholding the law or having treated them well in custody; and often attacks the international community for intruding in China’s affairs. The language can be identical to official Chinese statements.
Gui Minhai’s third and most recent “confession” in February 2018 is emblematic.
In the video, Gui, a Swedish citizen, who was kidnapped by China in Thailand in 2015 and has spent much of the past two years incommunicado, accuses Sweden of “sensationalizing” his case and tricking him. It came off as a direct rebuttal to Sweden’s objections over Gui’s treatment.
The content is suspiciously directed at Sweden and the international community. The intended audience is clear.
In her chapter in “The People’s Republic of the Disappeared,” human rights lawyer Wang Yu describes how she was black hooded and handcuffed and driven to a television station in Beijing where they attempted to make her record a forced confession.
Several months later, she says, guards threatened her son, who had recently been detained, if she failed to cooperate in recording a “confession.” She relented. The police then gave her the script, which called for her to denounce anti-China foreign forces.
China’s embrace of forced confessions is a mockery of its rhetoric of the rule of law.
Forced confessions violate domestic and international human rights law. They violate the fundamental right to a fair trial. They often take place following lengthy pre-trial detention despite safeguards under international law that require both the right of habeas corpus, to know the reason for one’s detention, and the right to a trial within a reasonable time.
A criminal justice system, such as China’s, that relies on confessions, raises the risk of torture. Many televised confessions are allegedly the result of extreme coercion or torture, according to those who have been through them and their supporters.
While the main vehicle is CCTV, whose English language outlet has rebranded as CGTN, any media that participates is complicit in human rights violations and ceases de facto to be news media.
What can be done?
The United States should demand Chinese media organizations to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), requiring disclosure of activities and funding. This may not be far off.
In November 2017 the U.S. Department of Justice required Russia’s RT America to register under FARA and in early 2018 a bipartisan group of US Senators called on the Department of Justice to extend the same expectation on Chinese state-controlled media.
Media executives bear further responsibility for the broadcast of forced confessions. Those responsible should be listed under the Magnitsky Act, which allows for sanctioning financial assets and travel restrictions.
A similar move was adopted by the European Council in 2013 against Iranian Press TV executives for their network’s broadcast of forced confessions. There is no reason for CCTV or Xinhua executives to be treated differently.
By knowingly and willfully spreading propaganda obtained through coercion and torture, CCTV and others cease to be news media. In light of the growing international presence of Chinese media, allowing the intrusion of state propaganda grounded in torture to masquerade as news media represents a threat to a truly free press operating in the public interest.