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Human-rights group urges sanctions against Chinese state media for forced confessions

April 16, 2018

The Globe and Mail, April 10, 2018- Dozens of times over the past five years, high-profile detainees in China have memorized scripts admitting guilt and denouncing “anti-China forces.” They then delivered them to cameras under the direction of police, who in some cases demanded weeping for dramatic effect and spent hours recording retakes to obtain the final result: a polished confession released to the public, typically on television by state media.

Chinese authorities have honed the “weaponization” of such admissions, says Scripted and Staged, a lengthy new report by human-rights group Safeguard Defenders that has investigated 45 televised admissions since 2013. Some of those confessions, delivered by foreign citizens or people of global concern, have become tools of foreign policy as well as domestic propaganda. 

Now, the authors of the report are calling for foreign countries to act against the broadcasters of those confessions, including through imposition of travel bans and asset freezes against executives at state media. 

“China’s use of forced television confessions warrants urgent global attention,” the report states. Media that collaborate in the process, it says, are “as culpable as the Chinese state in committing this deceptive, illegal and human rights-violating practice.”

Those who have made such confessions include accused fraudsters, drug users and terrorists, as well as human-rights lawyers, activists and journalists. Critics say China obtains confessions by coercion and their public airing violates the basic legal rights of confessors, many of whom appear on television before they appear in court. 

The report also recommends the registration of Chinese media employees abroad as foreign agents, and the use of Magnitsky legislation – which has been adopted in Canada, among other countries – to pursue sanctions on human-rights grounds against media owned or controlled by China’s Communist Party.

The call for sanctions follows similar action taken in 2013 by the European Court of Justice against executives with Iran’s Press TV for its role in airing forced confessions. The network was also dropped from some international satellite services, a move it called a “flagrant violation of freedom of speech.”

“The danger is if we do not make a concrete response and clear objection to China’s televised confessions, then not only will China continue the repugnant practice, then such abuse will become normalized,” said report editor Rachael Tyrell.

State media are a key component of Beijing’s bid to shape global perceptions of the country. Last month, the Chinese government made public plans to merge some of its media operations into a new broadcaster, Voice of China, whose operation will fall under the leadership of the Communist Party’s Central Publicity Department.

China’s People’s Daily has said it needs a “‘super voice’ to drown out the anti-China propaganda and give people a clearer picture of China.”


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