A woman holds a poster of Simon Cheng, a staff member at the consulate who went missing on August 9 after visiting the neighboring mainland city of Shenzhen, during a protest outside the British Consulate-general office in Hong Kong, China, Aug. 21, 2019.
A woman holds a poster of Simon Cheng, a staff member at the consulate who went missing on August 9 after visiting the neighboring mainland city of Shenzhen, during a protest outside the British Consulate-general office in Hong Kong, China, Aug. 21, 2019.

A former employee of the British Consulate in Hong Kong, Simon Cheng, who accuses China's secret police of kidnapping and torture, has filed a complaint with Britain's Office of Communications (Ofcom) against China Global Television Network (CGTN) for having broadcast what he called his forced TV confession.

Observers say Cheng's case follows similar complaints made earlier by British citizen Peter Humphrey and missing Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai, all of which highlighted the Chinese broadcaster's alleged violation of many sections of the British Broadcasting Code.

Ofcom is also looking into CGTN's alleged biased coverage of Hong Kong's monthslong pro-democracy protests.

In an emailed reply to VOA, an Ofcom spokesperson confirmed: "We have received a complaint about a programme broadcast on CGTN which we are assessing as a priority." 

If found guilty, CGTN  the international arm of Chinese state media CCTV, may be given punishments or even lose its license to broadcast in Britain, which will hurt its planned expansion in Europe, the Ofcom spokesperson said.

Trial by media

Cheng's Ofcom complaint, obtained by VOA, stated that a 54-second news report about his alleged solicitation of prostitutes, aired by the channel's China24 program last Thursday, was inaccurate, unfair and one-sided.

For example, the newscaster started by saying that Cheng was on trial in August, which he denied.

"This is a direct lie. There has been no trial, not even an indictment," Cheng said in the complaint. 

"In fact, I was, according to Chinese police, placed in 'administrative detention,' which is not a judicial process at all, it is an extrajudicial measure," he added.

Cheng was released in late August after a 15-day incommunicado detention. 

The CGTN also aired what it called "video evidence" of Cheng's illegal solicitation of prostitution — that is, surveillance camera video, released by the police, in which Cheng insisted that he was visiting a massage parlor, not a brothel.

'No journalistic merit'

"Broadcasting such a 'confession' has no journalistic merit and is not the behavior of a real media outlet," Cheng said in the complaint.

"CGTN did not solicit comments, inputs or responses. Nor was I in any way approached to give my consent to this defamatory and inaccurate broadcast," he added. 

Forced TV confessions have long been a problematic practice in China, said Lo Shih-hung, professor of communications at National Chung Cheng University in Taipei.

"Many past cases have shown [the accused] giving confession, apologizing or repenting in front of the CCTV's camera. This has never been a due practice in any democratic country where the rule of law prevails," Lo said.

"On one hand, the report isn't balanced. On the other, the accused is deprived of rights to a fair trial, which infringes basic human rights," he added. 

Rights group Safeguard Defenders said the CGTN report was meant to smear Cheng as it was aired one day after he broke his silence and attested in an online statement and media interviews that he had been kidnapped, detained, tortured and forced to confess.

According to Cheng, the confession was extracted and recorded in the last four days of his detention, where he said he was threatened with charges of endangering national security, for which he could serve a two-year sentence if he failed to give answers that pleased the police.

Phone calls, a voice message and an email by VOA to CGTN's contact person, Alice Tang of Star China Media Ltd. in Hong Kong, went unanswered. 

An email to the broadcaster's headquarters in Beijing produced no reply. 

Smear tactics 

"The [CGTN] broadcast, which presents accusations as facts, is intended to smear Simon [Cheng], reduce his credibility," Safeguard Defenders said in a press statement. 

The rights group has documented a series of forced TV confessions as a phenomenon since Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power. 

The group, which has experience in assisting Cheng and several others filing Ofcom complaints, said it is confident that CGTN will be found guilty.

"It's very difficult for Ofcom not to convict CGTN. So, the question then of course is, well, what's the punishment?" said Peter Dahlin, director of Safeguard Defenders.

"It can go anywhere from a warning to a fine, to losing their license. We've seen this happen before with Iran's Press TV [losing] their license for broadcasting one of these forced confessions," he added.

In July, a Kremlin-funded news channel, formerly known as Russia Today, was fined $258,000 by Ofcom for failing on seven occasions to present impartial news reports.

Expanding influence 

According to Dahlin, CGTN is taking the Ofcom complaints very seriously as sources inside its headquarters in Beijing revealed that emergency meetings had been called to address previous complaints.

And before Cheng, the broadcaster had refrained from airing such confessions for a period of time, he said. 

The rights activist said that being on Ofcom's radar will mean a big setback to CGTN's plan of expanding its influence in Europe, given its American arm has already registered as a foreign agent in the U.S.

And he hopes the move will help many others avoid such unfair media treatment.

Lo, the National Chung Cheng University professor, said CGTN can still expand into other European countries should its license be revoked in London, but a conviction of any sort will no doubt hurt its reputation as a news outlet.