China Power | Society | East Asia

China Bans BBC World News Over Xinjiang Reporting

The move followed a BBC report on the systemic sexual abuse of Uyghurs, as well as a British decision to ban CGTN broadcasts.

Shannon Tiezzi
China Bans BBC World News Over Xinjiang Reporting
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

In an overnight announcement on February 11, China’s broadcast regulator, the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA), announced the BBC World News television channel would be banned in China. BBC World News coverage of China “seriously violated… requirements that news reporting be true and impartial and undermined China’s national interests and ethnic solidarity,” according to Xinhua’s summary.

“As the channel fails to meet the requirements to broadcast in China as an overseas channel, BBC World News is not allowed to continue its service within Chinese territory. The NRTA will not accept the channel’s broadcast application for the new year,” the regulator’s statement said.

The move was largely symbolic, because BBC World already was limited to being shown on cable TV systems in hotels and apartment compounds for foreigners and some other businesses. Even then, the channel would routinely “black out” on occasion when sensitive topics were under discussion (such as Hong Kong’s national security legislation). The BBC’s website has long been banned in China.

In a more impactful move, however, Hong Kong’s public broadcaster, Radio Television Hong Kong, followed suit by announcing it would “suspend” broadcasts of BBC World Service and BBC News Weekly. RTHK’s union expressed concern over the move, saying that under “one country, two systems” Hong Kong has never before had to take orders from the broadcasting regulator in Beijing.

In a statement on Twitter, the BBC News Press Team condemned the decision. “Access to accurate and impartial news is a fundamental human right and should not be denied to the people of Hong Kong and mainland China,” the statement said. “…We stand by our journalism and totally reject accusations of inaccuracy or ideological bias.”

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The announcement came just over a week after the BBC released a detailed report, based on survivor and witness testimonies, alleging systemic sexual abuse in the Xinjiang camps. “Women in China’s ‘re-education’ camps for Uighurs have been systematically raped, sexually abused, and tortured,” the report began. The lengthy report is the first time Uyghur women have gone on record about suffering sexual abuse while detained in Xinjiang.

The report apparently touched a nerve in Beijing. Since then, the BBC has come under repeated attack by Chinese officials and media alike. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin repeatedly slammed the BBC for “fake news” and “badmouthing disinformation against Xinjiang and China.”

“The BBC report on alleged abuses of women’s rights in Xinjiang you mentioned has no factual basis at all,” Wang said on February 3.

“Once again, BBC has released such a sensational report without verifying the facts. This is a serious breach of professional ethics. BBC is risking its own reputation,” he added on February 5.

Meanwhile, Xinhua, China’s state news agency, released a lengthy “fact check” that included an attempt to directly refute the testimony of one witness quoted in the BBC report. (Notably, Xinhua’s fact check did not address the bulk of the testimony from other survivors.)

While the NRTA’s justification only cited BBC World News’ “serious content violation” in justifying its decision, it may have also been retaliation for a similar move targeting a Chinese state broadcaster in the United Kingdom. On February 4, Ofcom, the British broadcast regulator, revoked the license for the state-owned China Global Television Network (CGTN) – the overseas counterpart to China Central Television –  to broadcast in the U.K.

“In the UK, broadcasting laws made by Parliament state that broadcast licensees must have control over the licensed service – including editorial oversight over the programmes they show. In addition, under these laws, licence holders cannot be controlled by political bodies,” Ofcom said in a statement announcing its decision.

Our investigation concluded that Star China Media Limited (SCML), the licence-holder for the CGTN service, did not have editorial responsibility for CGTN’s output. As such, SCML does not meet the legal requirement of having control over the licensed service, and so is not a lawful broadcast licensee.”

CGTN apparently asked to hold the license in its own name, but was unable to prove its independence from the Chinese Communist Party to Ofcom’s satisfaction. “Given CGTNC is controlled by CCTV – which, as part of the China Media Group, is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party and therefore disqualified from holding a broadcast licence under UK broadcasting laws – we consider that CGTNC would be disqualified from holding a licence,” the statement said.

It was an embarrassing setback for CGTN, which has its European headquarters in London. According to Deutsche Welle, the move also scuttled CGTN broadcasting in Germany, which had been based on Ofcom approval as part of a license-sharing initiative.

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Chinese official had previously slammed Ofcom for the decision. “China is a socialist country led by the CPC [Communist Party of China], and the British side has always been clear about the nature of the Chinese media. It has known this since the first day CGTN landed in the UK 18 years ago,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang said in his press conference on February 5.

“Now, the British side is having an issue with the nature of the Chinese media and using it to oppress CGTN. This is all political manipulation. We urge the British side to correct its mistakes and facilitate Chinese media’s normal news reporting in the UK.”

That may have inspired China’s government to take aim at BBC, especially in the wake of the latest report on sexual abuse against Uyghurs.

Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab hit back at China’s BBC ban, calling it an “unacceptable curtailing of media freedom.”

“[T]his latest steps will only damage China’s reputation in the eyes of the world,” he said in a tweet.

The additional reporting by the Associated Press.