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The UK’s communications regulator Ofcom has revoked the licence of China Global Television Network (CGTN) to be able to broadcast in Britain amid concerns of political control.

The move comes following an investigation by the regulatory body into the licence holder, Star China Media Ltd, which concluded it didn’t exercise editorial control over the English language arm of the Chinese state broadcaster, China Central Television (CCTV).

As such, the company did not meet the legal requirement to hold a licence, Ofcom said.

In addition, efforts to transfer the licence to CCTV were also restricted by the UK regulator. The Chinese media outlet is disqualified from holding a licence because of its affiliation with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

British broadcasting laws prohibit political bodies or organisations with political ties from holding a broadcast licence in the UK.

A spokesperson for Ofcom said: “Our investigation showed that the licence for China Global Television Network is held by an entity which has no editorial control over its programmes. We are unable to approve the application to transfer the licence to China Global Television Network Corporation because it is ultimately controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, which is not permitted under UK broadcasting law.

“We’ve provided CGTN with numerous opportunities to come into compliance, but it has not done so. We now consider it appropriate to withdraw the licence for CGTN to broadcast in the UK.”

The London-based UK operation is CGTN’s third base outside China after opening bureaux in Washington DC and Nairobi.

Responding to Ofcom’s ruling, Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture Media and Sport, Jo Stevens said: “All too often TV channels run by foreign states have flagrantly breached the broadcasting code, and the findings against CGTN were damning.

“Ofcom was right to act in line with its duty to make sure those that hold a licence to broadcast in this country are fit and proper”.

In 2020, the broadcaster was found to have breached impartiality rules in its coverage of protests in Hong Kong. Ofcom also upheld complaints about the channel over breaches of its fairness and privacy rules after it airing an alleged forced confession of UK citizen Peter Humphrey and his wife.

The regulator had threatened sanctions over the breaches, something which it can legally continue to pursue even after CGTN ceases to hold its licence.

‘CGTN important for China’s soft power drive in Europe’

In a statement, human rights group Safeguard Defenders, who lodged an official complaint with Ofcom about CGTN, said: “The decision by Ofcom sends a strong signal that UK regulations apply equally to all, and follows a similar decision against Iranian State TV many years back.

“It is also likely to set a precedent for stringent enforcement of the rules concerning licence ownership and control by political parties, an issue that, as far as we know, has never been tested before”.

Safeguard Defenders, an organisation which aims to promote the rule of law in Asia, expects China to respond “harshly” over what it sees as its soft power abroad being curtailed by Ofcom’s decision.

“It cannot be stressed enough how important CGTN is in the CCPs planned expansion of soft power and influence in Europe, which with the deterioration of the relationship with the US has only grown more important,” the statement added.

“While CCTV and CGTN plan for their future new headquarters, likely in Brussels, this will cause severe disruption to Chinese TV-based influencing operations in Europe.

“Far worse, for CGTN, Ofcom’s decision may draw attention to a type of violation that has gone largely unnoticed and may commit other TV regulators to take a closer look at the operations of both CCTV and CGTN in other jurisdictions.”

What about digital?

It is not clear whether Ofcom’s ruling – which the regulator confirmed to Euronews only applies to CGTN’s ability to broadcast on its satellite news channel and not its online streaming service – will greatly impact its digital operations.

“It is true that CCTV, for example, which airs many more such confessions and other forms of broadcasts that go against UK standards, has always been able to broadcast via IP and online. CGTN will be able to continue as well, even after this,” Peter Dahlin, director of Safeguard Defenders, told Euronews.

“The UK has the most robust TV regulatory system across Europe, but it is still outdated and therefore prone to violations and circumvention.

“Nonetheless, the real power behind this decision is more about the wakeup call across Europe about these kinds of widespread broadcasting violations, and whether other regulatory bodies might start taking similar actions/investigations, something that has been lacking in the past”.

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