The U.K.’s broadcast regulator Ofcom said Thursday that it had revoked the license of CGTN, the overseas arm of China Central Television. The move is likely to increase tensions between the two already fractious countries.
Ofcom explained that it had “withdrawn the license for CGTN to broadcast in the UK, after its investigation concluded that the license is wrongfully held by Star China Media Limited.”
While that reads like a technicality, the regulator explained that licensees must have editorial control over the licensed service. In addition, license holders cannot be controlled by political bodies. CGTN fell foul on these two counts because editorial control rests with CCTV, which is ultimately controlled by the Communist Party of China. Additionally, Star China Media “is the distributor of the CGTN service in the U.K., rather than the provider of the service,” Ofcom explained.
“In addition, (Ofcom has) been unable to grant an application to transfer the license to an entity called China Global Television Network Corporation (CGTNC). This is because crucial information was missing from the application, and because we consider that CGTNC would be disqualified from holding a license, as it is controlled by a body which is ultimately controlled by the Chinese Communist Party,” Ofcom continued.
Previously, CGTN was found to be in breach of Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code for failing to preserve due impartiality in its coverage of the Hong Kong protests. These constituted a “serious breach” of the U.K.’s fairness and privacy rules. “We expect to conclude separate sanctions proceedings against CGTN for due impartiality and fairness and privacy breaches shortly,” the Ofcom statement said.
Ofcom also has three other ongoing fairness and privacy investigations about content on CGTN’s service in the U.K. These remain ongoing, pending further consideration.
There has been no comment yet from CGTN or CCTV, but the U.K. move is likely to meet with retaliation and is certain to stoke tensions between the two countries.
Relations between the U.K. and China are already tense due to a string of disputes. These include: the U.K.’s recent tightening of rules on imports of cotton from the Xinjiang region, where China has been accused of religious persecution, slavery, state-sanctioned rape and forced sterilization of Uighur Muslims; the U.K.’s U-turn and eventual decision to bar the purchase of 5G equipment from China’s Huawei telecoms equipment firm; the South China Sea; and investment policy.
By far the biggest area of contention is Hong Kong, the former British colony that was handed back to China in July 1997, but which was set up as a Special Administrative Area of China with a “high degree of autonomy” guaranteed by international treaty until 2047.
In the past five years, Chinese control over Hong Kong has increased considerably and the territory’s partial democracy has been rolled back. In summer 2019, the Hong Kong government proposed to allow extradition to mainland China, a move which brought two million people to the streets in protest. (It was CGTN’s reporting of this that was punished by Ofcom.)
Since then, in July 2020, China injected a National Security Law into Hong Kong’s mini constitution known as the Basic Law. This move allows Chinese security forces to operate freely in the city under mainland law, the establishment of special courts to rule on security measures, and even the transfer of cases to the mainland. The National Security Law also allows increased monitoring of media in Hong Kong.
Since that time elections to Hong Kong’s legislative Council have been postponed, legislators from opposition parties have been removed from office, and pro-democracy activists who attempted to select new candidates through primary elections, have been arrested.
The U.K.’s reaction has been the National Security Law has been to offer everyone in Hong Kong who is eligible to apply for a British National (Overseas) passport, some five million people, five-years of residency in the U.K. and a route to full U.K. citizenship. The U.K.’s Home Office said it expects 300,000 Hong Kongers to take up its special visa over the next five years. China and Hong Kong last week responded by saying that they no longer recognized the BN (O) passport as a valid travel document.
Since mid-2020 China has also taken an increasingly strong stance against foreign journalists. Several reporters for U.S.-owned media including the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal were expelled.
More recently, those mainland Chinese rules appeared to also be applied in Hong Kong, which had previously operated its own visa policy for foreign journalists and which had once allowed the city to flourish as a media hub.
Foreign TV channels are mostly barred from operating in mainland China, though a couple of dozen, including the U.K. state-owned British Broadcasting Corporation, are allowed limited landing rights and can be screened in high end apartment complexes and hotels.
China and the U.S., under the previous Donald Trump regime, made journalistic access yet another battle ground in their Cold War. Both countries engaged in tit for tat measures and expelled each reporters on at least two occasions.
The Ofcom decision strikes against the broadcast operations of the Chinese state broadcaster in the U.K. But it does nothing to stop Chinese journalists continuing to report from the country.
With the exception of one Financial Times editor expelled from Hong Kong for organizing a public seminar with a pro-democracy campaigner, U.K. journalists operating in China have not recently been subject to the same difficulties as American or Canadian nationals.
It remains to be seen how far China goes with its reprisals. In recent days, the BBC published some of the most damning witness and victim testimony yet to emerge from Xinjiang. Earlier on Thursday, China’s foreign ministry also made “solemn representations to the BBC’s Beijing branch over its false reporting about the COVID-19 pandemic in the country.”