A CBC documentary about human rights abuses in China has been pulled from Canadian airwaves after the Chinese embassy put pressure on the nation's broadcaster.
"I'm pretty sure Stephen Harper is not happy about this," a government official said on condition of anonymity. "Last week, the prime minister stands up to Chinese threats and meets with the Dalai Lama. This week, the CBC kowtows to Chinese threats and brings Chinese-style censorship to Canada—one day after Harper's hand-picked CBC president is announced."
Peter Rowe, who wrote, directed, and produced Beyond the Red Wall: The Persecution of Falun Gong for CBC, said he received a surprise call Tuesday from CBC just hours before the program was to air.
"They said they had some bad news, and they were sorry but the film wasn't going to be shown," said Rowe.
Jeff Keay, CBC's head of media relations English communications, admitted a cultural representative in Ottawa's Chinese embassy had called CBC within the last week to complain about the film. Days later, the film was pulled.
CBC editors and lawyers approved the documentary in March. It aired last week in French Canada and has also been shown in Spain, Portugal, and New Zealand, with Ireland soon to follow.
Rowe questions why the film should be revised for English Canadian viewers.
"When you have a decision at the 11th hour like this you've got to wonder if it's a rational, measured decision about the quality of the film, or if it's a reaction to pressure."
CBC has denied it is giving into pressure from the Chinese regime.
"I wouldn't put it that way," Keay says. But Rowe says CBC editors asked him to change segments of the film that are particularly sensitive to the Chinese authorities.
One such segment deals with reports that the Chinese communist regime has been killing Falun Gong believers for their organs and selling the organs for profit, some to foreigners.
In the film, Rowe interviews former Canadian parliamentarian David Kilgour who together with human rights lawyer David Matas has investigated the organ harvesting claims.
Their report, released last year, confirmed the practice is taking place.
Rowe says CBC also asked for edits to a segment of the film that discredits an alleged "self-immolation" incident. In January 2001, several people set themselves on fire in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
The Chinese authorities widely propagated footage of the incident, claiming the immolators to be Falun Gong practitioners and alleging that Falun Gong had led them to burn themselves. The footage has been one of the regime's greatest justifications for its now-eight-year persecution of the group.
An analysis of the self-immolation video in Rowe's film supports that the incident was staged by the Chinese communists.
Cutting such content would amount to censorship, believes Rabbi Reuven Bulka, a doctor and co-president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. Bulka has supported investigation into the persecution of Falun Gong in China.
"Those things are true," said Bulka. "If you take that out you are not going to have an honest picture of what is going on."
Viewers in French Canada who saw the documentary said it offered information on a topic not often covered in mainstream media.
Ginette Collin, a 63-year-old nurse in Edmundston, New Brunswick, saw the documentary in French recently on RDI Reportage.
"It is very well done to the tee and a current topic, especially in the run-up to the Olympics," said Collin. "I had no idea that they were doing this and if it's true it's a real butchery, and I think that the people should boycott the Olympics."
Last week, Rowe had praised the CBC—Canada's broadcaster for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing—for its courage to cover the persecution of Falun Gong despite its interests in China.
This week, he's wondering if his film will ever air on the CBC's national network, let alone CBC Newsworld.
CBC said it still intends to broadcast Beyond the Red Wall, but so far has given no date.