China journalist slams state TV for airing coerced public confession

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A producer for China’s state broadcaster CCTV said on Monday that he had been fired after he criticised the network’s role in a controversial crackdown on online rumours.

Wang Qinglei made the statement in an open letter, which has since been scrubbed from Chinese social media.

He took issue with China Central Television‘s airing of a confession by Chinese-American venture capitalist Charles Xue in which he said he irresponsibly spread gossip online.

CCTV often airs confessions by thieves, prostitutes and other petty criminals, but in recent months, a string of high-profile suspects have confessed to crimes on air, often wearing handcuffs and jumpsuits.

Critics say public confessions deprive the accused of the right to a fair trial.

Wang echoed this criticism in his letter, saying that while fighting legitimate gossip is laudable, the media should not decide who is innocent or guilty.

Critics say China’s campaign against online rumours is nothing more than censorship. Several well-known commentators have been caught in the crackdown, and high-profile microbloggers have said they are more reticent to post for fear of repercussions.

“The news media is not a court,” Wang said. “What authority do we have to meddle with the law to judge who’s a Big V and what is a rumour?”

Big Vs are users of China’s Twitter-like Sina Weibo microblog who have accumulated a large number of followers, and who have come under specific scrutiny from authorities in the anti-rumour campaign. Xue had 12 million followers on Weibo.

CCTV essentially prosecuted Xue by airing his confession, Wang said.

Police have used the crackdown on gossip as a pretext to go after cases they could not have easily tackled before, he added.

“Local public security authorities, in cases where there was no obvious legal or judicial basis, would use all kinds of charges to crack down on ‘rumours’,” his letter says.

A top internet official said last week the crackdown on rumours was a resounding success at “cleaning” the internet and emphasised that it was China’s prerogative to ban online speech it views as threatening domestic stability.

Courts in China answer to the ruling Communist Party. It is unusual for those accused of crimes – particularly in politicised cases – to have a fair trial or to be found not guilty.

Tony Simon

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