The BBC Broadcasting House in London
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LONDON – This Chinese New Year, there was one less TV channel to tune into 1.4 billion people in China after the nation banned the BBC from broadcasting to its citizens.
China’s national radio and television administration said Friday that BBC World News would not allow it to continue broadcasting in China and Hong Kong. She accused the BBC of failing to meet the demands for truthfulness and fairness of the news and accused them of harming China’s national interests.
The BBC said in a statement: “The BBC is the most trusted international news broadcaster in the world and reports stories around the world fairly, impartially and without fear or favor.”
It added, “We are disappointed that the Chinese authorities have decided to take this course of action.”
The BBC recently covered a number of sensitive issues in China, including the treatment of the Uighur minority in China’s Xinjiang province.
On February 2nd, the BBC reported on the alleged rape and torture of women in “re-education” camps for Uyghurs. The Chinese government told the BBC that the allegations were “completely unfounded”. The “centers” in Xinjiang are designed to fight extremism and develop the professional skills of the Uyghurs.
On the coronavirus, the BBC broadcast recordings in December of what appeared to be people who were aggressively dragged away by authorities for examination. It has also been questioned whether China’s death toll is trustworthy.
China has criticized the BBC for its coverage of Xinjiang and the coronavirus. The Chinese Embassy in London didn’t respond to a CNBC request for comment, but the Chinese government said its response to the virus was quick and effective.
Tim Davie, the head of the BBC, hit back on China’s decision on Saturday, saying, “Freedom of the media is important.”
The broadcaster’s general manager said on Twitter that the latest developments were “deeply worrying” and argued that the BBC could do its coverage “without fear or favor”.
He added: “It is deeply worrying when our journalists are restricted and their work restricted.”
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Thursday that China’s decision to ban BBC World News in mainland China is an “unacceptable restriction” on media freedom.
“China has some of the toughest restrictions on media and internet freedoms in the world, and this final move will only damage China’s reputation in the eyes of the world,” he said on Twitter. CNBC has asked the Chinese embassy in London for comment.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, a professional association of journalists from Beijing, said it was concerned about the reasons given by the Chinese radio and television administration for the BBC ban, including allegations that BBC broadcasts were serving China’s national interests harmed and undermined China’s national unity.
The FCCC believes that such language should “send a warning to foreign media in China that sanctions may be imposed on them if their reporting does not align with the Chinese party line on Xinjiang and other ethnic minority regions.”
A BBC official, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the discussion, told CNBC that it was “obviously worrying for the audience there that a neutral news service is gone”.
Meanwhile, Matthew Brennan, a China-based technology analyst, told CNBC that the block was a shame, but not surprising.
What caused the ban
The ban comes after Ofcom, the UK’s media regulator, withdrew its license for CGTN, China’s English-language news broadcaster.
Ofcom said on February 4 that CGTN has filed misleading ownership statements and “is ultimately controlled by the Chinese Communist Party”.
Richard Sambrook, the former director of the BBC’s global news division who was responsible for running the BBC’s international intelligence service, told CNBC that the BBC ban was a direct response.
“China has responded predictably in kind against BBC World News,” said Sambrook, who is now director of the Center for Journalism at Cardiff University. “China already bans BBC services in Chinese languages and, to a large extent, the BBC’s online site. These types of media movements are reminiscent of years gone by (for example, during the Cold War) when they were not uncommon.”
Sambrook added, “The moves may best reflect a cooling of UK-China relations – in line with a shift in China-West relations in a broader sense.”
Sambrook said that BBC World News, a commercial operation, will lose some revenue due to the ban.
Rasmus Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, said the BBC decision could not be compared to the CGTN decision.
While Ofcom’s decision related to the ownership structure of CGTN, China’s decision to block the BBC had to do with content, Nielsen said.
Nielsen pointed out that everyone in the UK can still access CGTN, they just can’t see it on TV.
“It’s important to remember that while the distribution of television programming is symbolically important, it is trivial in terms of the reach of CGTN in the UK and beyond,” said Nielsen, adding that the broadcaster is less than a million Viewers had what is less than half the Sky Cinema sci-fi horror channel.
“The actual audience for this outlet is arguably online and Ofcom’s decision does not change anyone’s ability to access CGTN content on their website, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or otherwise.”
No big impact?
Kerry Allen, a Chinese media analyst at BBC News who translates, writes, edits and broadcasts stories with a Chinese media nook, pointed out that the latest move will not have much of an impact on the people of China.
“It (the BBC World News TV channel) is only found in hotels and diplomatic establishments, and viewers are used to seeing the screen go black when they cover China stories,” she said.
“Chinese media recently wanted to paint a picture of Britain suppressing Chinese voices and instead highlighting damned reports about China,” Allen said. “There is a certain irony in the government media taking this stance, as this is something China has done for a long time – censors any media organization that contradicts government rhetoric and stories that cast China in a negative light.”
Allen pointed out that the people in the country can access the BBC website and radio stations using a VPN or virtual private network.
What happens next?
Nielsen said China’s decision to ban BBC World News had more to do with politics than the media.
He said it couldn’t really be seen as anything other than a “warning shot that any kind of restriction on China’s ability to project soft power overseas can be countered with similar steps in China itself.”
“I think both international media and international journalists are wondering how far and for how long they can report from the mainland, especially when reporting on topics that the Chinese government considers sensitive or controversial.”