U.K. revokes broadcast license of CGTN after finding it is ‘ultimately controlled by the Chinese Communist Party’

Foreign Affairs

Chinese state news channel CGTN has been taken off the air in the U.K., after British regulator Ofcom found problems with its license ownership.

The CCTV headquarters in Beijing. CGTN is the overseas arm of CCTV. Photo via REUTERS/Tingshu Wang.

The British broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, said today that it has revoked the license of the Chinese state news channel CGTN (press release; notice of revocation), after a yearlong investigation. Ofcom cited two reasons for the license revocation:

  • A procedural issue with the ownership of the license, as Ofcom found that “Star China Media Limited (SCML), the license-holder for the CGTN service, did not have editorial responsibility for CGTN’s output.” 
  • A political issue, because even if CGTN had successfully changed its license holder — Ofcom said that “crucial information was missing” on CGTN’s application to transfer its license — the investigation found that CGTN is “controlled by a body which is ultimately controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.” Under British broadcasting rules, “license holders cannot be controlled by political bodies.”

CGTN has long been in the crosshairs in the U.K., with a variety of complaints being lodged against it. The complaint that led to CGTN’s license being revoked was filed in February 2020 by Safeguard Defenders, an NGO led by Peter Dahlin, a Swedish citizen who was detained in China in 2016 and forced to give a televised confession — on CGTN — during 23 days of interrogation. 

  • Ofcom said last year that it would sanction CGTN for an earlier forced televised confession by Peter Humphrey, a British journalist who China detained in 2013 and released in 2014. 
  • Dahlin said, in an interview today with the Hong Kong Free Press, that he expects Ofcom to similarly rule that CGTN violated ethics rules by broadcasting the televised confessions of Swedish bookseller Guì Mǐnhǎi 桂敏海
  • Separately, Ofcom found last year that CGTN had failed “to represent anti-Beijing viewpoints during protests” in Hong Kong, breaking British broadcasting rules requiring the representation of multiple views. 

The start of a much bigger Beijing-Britain media spat?

The major decision by Ofcom to take CGTN off the air in the U.K. happened to come down at the same time that Beijing is furious at the BBC over multiple reports.

  • COVID-19 coverage: The Chinese foreign ministry today accused (in Chinese) the BBC of “fake news regarding the COVID-19 epidemic,” claiming that a January 29 broadcast had used misleading footage and “stirred up” theories that China had hidden information, was the source of the epidemic, and bore responsibility for COVID-19. 
  • Sexual violence against Uyghurs: After the BBC published a major report alleging systematic rape in Xinjiang detention camps, the Chinese foreign ministry called it “lies and misinformation cooked up by anti-China forces” (English, Chinese). 

Also, just today, per the Telegraph, “three Chinese spies posing as journalists” have been expelled from the U.K. 

A year ago, the U.S. took a step to classify Chinese media outlets, including CGTN, as extensions of the Chinese state. This move, while less extreme than banning any individual outlet from publishing, sparked a race to the bottom in media suppression between Washington and Beijing. More than a dozen American journalists were expelled from China in 2020. 

  • Will British media outlets and journalists in China face similar actions? We wouldn’t bet against it. 

See also: