Britain's television watchdog is expected to announce on Monday that China's state television channel severely violated British broadcasting rules by airing a forced confession of a UK citizen, the Telegraph understands.
China’s state broadcaster, which airs in English in the UK as CGTN, is likely to face sanctions, decided in a separate process by Ofcom, which could include hefty fines or being stripped of its broadcast license as a result of the investigation launched May 2019.
The ruling could escalate diplomatic tensions between the UK and China at a time when MPs have become more vocal in pressing for a re-think of bilateral relations. The original complaint to Ofcom, filed by Briton Peter Humphrey, focused on a confession forced under duress from him by Chinese authorities in 2013.
Mr Humphrey told the Telegraph in an interview last year that he was drugged and handcuffed to an iron chair inside a steel cage.
Six uniformed police officers sat at a podium while the lead interrogator read questions from a clipboard and instructed Mr Humphrey how to answer, he said.
A heavily edited version made to look like a news ‘interview’ with a bombshell ‘confession’ was broadcast around the world on CGTN, and other channels under parent Chinese state media organisation, CCTV – including in the UK.
“They twisted things,” Mr Humphrey previously told the Telegraph. “It was terrifying; all along, I knew I was innocent and that I was being falsely accused. I also knew that I had no way to escape.”
As the ‘confession’ was “procured under conditions tantamount to torture,” the broadcast itself violated a number of UK rules on impartiality, accuracy, fairness and derogatory or abusive content, Mr Humphrey wrote in his initial complaint, filed in November 2018.
Mr Humphrey and his American wife were detained for nearly two years on what they maintain were trumped-up charges relating to a bribery investigation.
Monday's announcement is one of a flurry of decisions expected to be announced in the coming months as Ofcom concludes a number of investigations into CGTN.
It remains unclear how Chinese authorities will react to the decision. Over the past year, Beijing has expelled 18 journalists from US outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, after Washington placed restrictions on CGTN and other Chinese state media outlets in the US.
In May, Ofcom found CGTN in “serious failure of compliance” by presenting biased coverage of the pro-democracy protests that swept Hong Kong last year; the regulator also said it was “minded” to formally sanction the organisation.
Other Ofcom investigations are ongoing into the broadcast of forced confessions from Swedish citizen Gui Minhai who previously published salacious titles about Chinese leaders, and former British consulate worker in Hong Kong Simon Cheng Man-kit.
Mr Gui first vanished five years ago while on holiday in Thailand before surfacing in China, ‘confessing’ on a state broadcast to a fatal drunk-driving accident in 2003 and for smuggling illegal books.
In February, he was sentenced in a secretive trial to ten years in prison for “providing intelligence” to foreign entities. His daughter, Angela Gui, who studies at the University of Cambridge, filed a complaint to Ofcom November 2018.
Mr Cheng filed a complaint last year for being forced to ‘confess’ to soliciting prostitution – used later as an explanation for why he disappeared for 15 days in August 2019, during which he said he was tortured, beaten and interrogated by Chinese secret police about Britain’s role in pro-democracy protests roiling Hong Kong.
Mr Cheng, a Hong Kong citizen, has since been granted political asylum in the UK.
CGTN hired former non-executive Ofcom board member Nick Pollard in December 2018 as it prepared to open a broadcast centre in West London’s Chiswick Park. Mr Pollard left after less than a year, reportedly over concerns about the Chinese state broadcaster’s impartiality.
CGTN established its third major global broadcasting hub in London, after Washington and Nairobi, looking to hire journalists to report news “from a Chinese perspective".
Ofcom has cancelled broadcast licenses in the past. In 2012, Iranian state broadcaster PressTV, also accused of airing forced confessions, lost its license after the regulator found its practice of running editorial oversight from Tehran breached broadcasting rules.
Safeguard Defenders, a human rights NGO, has written an open letter to Ofcom pressing for the cancellation of CGTN’s license, laying out evidence that the organisation is directly controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.