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British Broadcast Regulator Cancels License For Chinese Government's News Channel


China has spent recent years trying to improve its global image. That effort took a hit today in London. Britain's communications regulator announced it is stripping the state-run China global television network of its broadcast license there. NPR's Frank Langfitt explains from London.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: The CGTN, as it's known, opened its European production center here to great fanfare about two years ago. Today, Ofcom, the British regulator, announced it was pulling the network's license. Officials said the reason was straightforward. The people in charge of CGTN's editorial policy are ultimately beholden to China's Communist Party. In British broadcasting, law forbids political bodies from controlling license holders.

PETER HUMPHREY: Thank goodness. Finally, this license has been taken away.

LANGFITT: Peter Humphrey, a former fraud investigator in Shanghai, was glad to hear the news. He filed a complaint against CGTN last year not over Communist Party control of the network, but over Chinese state media's airing of what Humphrey says was a forced confession. It followed his arrest in 2013 on charges of illegally acquiring the personal data of Chinese nationals.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) We obtained personal information by illegal means. I regret what I did and apologize to the Chinese government.

LANGFITT: Humphrey insists he never actually confessed and that the interview was doctored. He also says his captors pressured him to make a statement by withholding medical treatment for his prostate cancer.

HUMPHREY: Considering the kind of brutal human rights violations that CGTN has been involved with, extracting and packaging forced confessions from prisoners held under torture in China who've never been in front of a judge - I just think that we should have no organization like that on our soil.

LANGFITT: In Humphrey's case, Ofcom found CGTN had seriously breached fairness and privacy rules. It also found the network had failed to cover the Hong Kong democracy protests with, quote, "due impartiality." CGTN was indignant with today's ruling. It blamed, quote, "the manipulation of far-right groups and anti-China forces" for the Ofcom decision, according to a statement on Weibo, China's nearest equivalent to Twitter. The loss of the license undermines a key Chinese government strategy.

Steve Tsang is director of the SOAS China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

STEVE TSANG: Xi Jinping has made it very clear. He wants the Chinese story being told well. He wants his version of everything being spread across the world in the most positive light possible. CGTN is one of those instruments used for this purpose.

LANGFITT: And Tsang expects the Chinese government to retaliate against BBC reporters in China, even though the BBC is editorially independent of the British government. Peter Dahlin is the director of Safeguard Defenders, a human rights organization which spearheaded the campaign against CGTN here.

PETER DAHLIN: The U.K. stands out across Europe as having a quite well-developed framework for how to regulate TV, for how to control this information.

LANGFITT: The stripping of the license prohibits CGTN from broadcasting here, but Dahlin says that doesn't mean the network has to leave. Still, he does think today's move could have ripple effects.

DAHLIN: Are other countries going to start holding them accountable as well? I think this might be the beginning of a process that CGTN will find very unfavorable for their type of disinformation, for their type of broadcasting.

LANGFITT: That would mean more challenges for a Chinese government that has invested a lot in trying to change the way it's perceived.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.