SBS Suspends Chinese State Media Broadcasts Over Human Rights Complaint

March 7, 2021 Updated: March 7, 2021

Australian public broadcaster SBS has temporarily stopped its broadcasts from Chinese state-run television CCTV and CGTN after receiving a complaint from a human rights group that both channels had aired dozens of forced confessions.

SBS announced on Friday it was reviewing a letter of complaint sent by the human rights organization Safeguard Defenders, which highlighted “serious human rights concerns”.

The group accused SBS’s English and Mandarin-language programs suppliers, CGTN and CCTV, of broadcasting at least 56 “forced confessions” from prisoners over a seven-year period. 

Both networks, produced by Chinese state-controlled media to target international audiences, are aired on SBS as part of its World Watch programming, with CGTN broadcasted since 2015 and CCTV since 1993. 

“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,” an SBS spokesman said on Friday.

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A Chinese flag flutters outside the CCTV headquarters, the home of Chinese state media outlet CCTV and its English-language sister channel CGTN, in Beijing, China, on Feb. 5, 2021. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins via Reuters)

In the letter of complaint, Safeguard Defenders said the confessions are forced out of prisoners who are arbitrarily detained or have not been on trial. It said CCTV and CGTN’s airing of the confessions breach SBS’s own code of conduct regarding the lack of consent and privacy infringement.

“These broadcasts involved the extraction, packaging and airing of forced and false confessions of prisoners held under conditions of duress and torture,” SBS reported the letter said.

“These offences involved the airing of ‘confessions’ extracted from suspects long before any indictment, trial or conviction, and in many instances while the victim was detained incommunicado, with no access to legal counsel, at secret locations.

“A significant number of these ‘confessions’ are broadcast not only in China, but internationally via CCTV-4 and CGTN,” the letter said.

Staged Confessions

Some of the people who have “confessed” on two Chinese state-owned channels include detained journalists, bloggers, lawyers, activists, Hong Kong booksellers, and Safeguard Defender’s director, who is also the author of the complaint letter, Peter Dahlin.

The ABC reported on Friday, last week, that Dahlin was arrested in China when running the non-governmental organization China Action which offers legal service to Chinese people and assists human rights lawyers. 

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Peter Dahlin in “On Chinese TV, Confessions Are All the Rage”, Wall Street Journal video on Youtube in January. 23, 2016. (Screenshot)

Dahlin had been held for almost one month when he says he was brought before television cameras to confess in January 2016.

He then “confessed” that he had “violated Chinese law,” “caused harm to the Chinese government,” and “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people” in a manipulated interview.

“I have been given good food, plenty of sleep, and I have suffered no mistreatments of any kind,” he told the interviewer, “I have no complaints to make. I think my treatment has been fair.”

Chinese state media agency Xinhua later used the confession to praise the Chinese police for having “smashed an illegal organisation that sponsored activities jeopardising China’s national security” while branding Dahlin as a “Western anti-China force.” 

The Chinese government later admitted that “coercive measures” have been used against him despite denying the claim initially, the Guardian reported.

Forced Confessions as a Political Tool

In a 2018 investigative report, Safeguard Defenders said the practice of forcing confessions out of dissidents lies “at the core of control in Communist China both for furthering the political grip and in ideological reform.”

It is known as the regime’s common tool to humiliate, discredit or persecute those deemed “class enemies” during the Mao era.

Similar defaming programs have been used to “serve as the party’s attack dogs when a particular political threat emerges”, wrote Sarah Cook, a research director at Freedom house, in a 2019 report.

Some of these include a 2009 documentary series about the Dalai Lama, the disinformation on the Hong Kong’s democracy protests, and efforts to justify the incarceration of the Uighurs, the report said.

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China’s TV Confessions, Al Jazeera English on February. 22, 2019 (Screenshot)

Western Media Versus Chinese Media Apparatus

SBS’s interim ban on CCTV and CGTN comes seven months after UK media regulator Ofcom revoked CGTN’s licence to operate in the UK.

The watchdog explained the decision in a statement that the Chinese media outlet is not controlled by its licence-holder, Star China Media Limited (SCML), but instead “by a body which is ultimately controlled by the Chinese Communist Party”. 

“We have given CGTN significant time to come into compliance with the statutory rules. Those efforts have now been exhausted,” Ofcom stated. 

SBS’s move is likely to intensify the diplomatic tensions between Australia and China, which is considered to be at its lowest point in decades.

Last year, the Australian spy agency ASIO raided the homes of Australian based Chinese state-media staff while investigating allegations of foreign interference. 

Meanwhile, China detained Cheng Lei, a Chinese Australian CGTN news anchor and deported two other Australian journalists. Beijing has also banned ABC’s digital platforms in China since 2018.

In 2019, concerns were raised over SBS’s decision to maintain the contract with Shuangyuan Shi, director of the Confucious Institute in the NSW Department of Education, despite the program being disbanded by the NSW government for fear of China’s infiltration.

An SBS spokesman backed Shi’s position as a cultural commentator on SBS Mandarin radio, saying he is a “well-known expert” and does not comment on any political matters.