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Australia SBS to temporarily stop airing Chinese state TV amid claims it broadcast forced prisoner confessions

09:37  05 march  2021
09:37  05 march  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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a group of people looking at each other: China's state broadcaster CCTV has aired footage from more than 50 forced confessions over the past seven years. (Supplied: YouTube) © Provided by ABC NEWS China's state broadcaster CCTV has aired footage from more than 50 forced confessions over the past seven years. (Supplied: YouTube)

SBS has announced it is temporarily suspending its daily broadcast of the Chinese government's Mandarin news bulletin after a human rights group accused the public broadcaster of airing forced confessions.

The group, named Safeguard Defenders, is the same one that successfully lobbied the UK television regulator to ban China's English-language state television channel last month.

Run by Swedish human rights activist Peter Dahlin, the group lodged a complaint accusing SBS of breaching its own code of conduct by airing a daily news program from CCTV-4, a channel of China's government broadcaster.

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In the letter of complaint, Mr Dahlin argues that the daily broadcast at 6:30am on the SBS Viceland channel breaches the code of conduct because CCTV-4 has aired footage from more than 50 forced confessions over the past seven years.

Safeguard Defenders said airing confessions forced out of people who had been arbitrarily detained, or before they had access to a trial, violated their right to privacy, another potential breach in the SBS code.

SBS has been airing the Chinese government news program for years as part of its World Watch selection of foreign news programs, with a disclaimer that says the programs "may not reflect SBS standards and may contain distressing material".

A spokesman told the ABC: "SBS has received a complaint which it is currently reviewing."

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"Given the serious concerns it raises, and the complexity of the material involved, we have made the decision to suspend the broadcast of the overseas-sourced CGTN and CCTV news bulletins while we undertake an assessment of these services."

Broadcast 'confessions' not what they seem

The forced confessions aired by Chinese state TV in recent years include one by Peter Dahlin himself.

In early 2016, he lived in Beijing where he ran a non-government organisation that provided legal aid to Chinese citizens and trained human rights lawyers.

He was arrested and held in a Beijing state security detention centre for more than three weeks in early 2016, and was only freed and deported after appearing on CCTV "confessing" to breaking China's laws.

Mr Dahlin later revealed details of the scripted confession, saying a CCTV reporter and camera operator worked with investigators in the prison cell.

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"When I saw the questions and answers, it became even more clear that, OK, this is part of a PR campaign. This is going to be on CCTV. I'm going to be a star," he told the New York Times in 2016.

Others who have "confessed" while detained include prominent activists, a Uyghur scholar, human rights lawyers, booksellers from Hong Kong and a British businessman.

Chinese state television off air in the UK

The SBS move comes after British television regulator Ofcom revoked the licence for CCTV's English-language channel CGTN in February for licensing violations.

The regulator ruled that the local licence holder for the channel in the UK didn't actually control it, but rather the Chinese Communist Party did.

That breached a ban on political parties operating television channels in the UK.

Ofcom had previously found CGTN breached UK broadcasting rules by airing footage from forced confessions and it separately found the channel breached impartiality standards in its coverage of the 2019 Hong Kong protests.

But in Australia, there is no licence that could be revoked. Instead, it is up to the discretion of SBS as to what it broadcasts.

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The Australian broadcaster has faced similar controversies in the past, with thousands of Vietnamese Australians in 2003 protesting against the broadcast of a state-controlled news program that many said was communist propaganda.

SBS continued to broadcast the program with the disclaimer.

The other television provider in Australia that airs Chinese government channels — Foxtel — has been contacted for comment.

Will forcing CCTV off the air make a difference?

The airing of the Chinese government's news program on a taxpayer-funded Australian broadcaster continued despite Beijing banning the ABC's digital platforms in China in 2018.

The Chinese government's cyberspace administration blocked people in China from logging on to the ABC website or using any of its apps right after the federal government announced it would ban Chinese tech giant Huawei from building Australia's 5G network.

But some experts believe taking Chinese state news off SBS would not make a difference to either the broadcast of forced confessions in China, or foreign media access.

"Most Mandarin speakers in Australia get most of their news through social media, such as WeChat, and not many from legacy media such as TV," Yun Jiang, a China specialist at Australian National University, said.

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"The CCTV news bulletin is very unappealing to most consumers."

In her view, many within the Chinese community are well aware it is Communist Party propaganda.

"In the case of China, I don't think reciprocity really works," she said.

Ms Yun argued that "if we block [state news agency] Xinhua or whoever, I don't think they would start unblocking Australian media," saying more Australian-produced Chinese language news services on ABC and SBS would help better serve Chinese communities.

A spokesman for Communications Minister Paul Fletcher referred the ABC to SBS's response.

"It's complicated, as SBS is supposed to broadcast content from other countries to serve multicultural communities," Feng Chongyi, an associate professor of Chinese studies at UTS, said.

"But to allow this program to continue airing, it means in one way or another, you're comfortable with the content."

Dr Feng warned Beijing may seek to retaliate by targeting Australian media, but acknowledged there were not many ways left for China to do that.

"The operation of CCTV in Australia is detrimental to the cultural development of Chinese communities in Australia, because it continues to promote the party-state mentality in Australia, and it gives people less incentive to embrace local media," Dr Feng said.

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