China Central Television, Reviled at Home
The state outlet has fallen so far from its perch that editors are embarrassed to wear the CCTV logo in public.
BEIJING — In Dec. 2013, China Central Television (CCTV) producer Wang Qinglei wrote a post on his Weibo account criticizing the Chinese government’s campaign-style attacks on prominent social media figures. Wang argued that the media had also been drawn in and was "sidestepping the law," allowing the government to "rape our journalistic standards." Wang had just been dismissed from his post for violating CCTV’s microblogging and "discipline management" rules, and in his farewell post, he wrote that he intended to "record the truth" about "the era in which we live." With shocking candor, Wang laid bare the true face of Chinese Central Television. "None of us actually believes the things we report," he wrote. He recalled one of his superiors saying, "When you’re deciding what to cover, ask yourself first what you’d most like to report on, what you think most deserves coverage. That’s what you can’t report on." Every year, Wang wrote, CCTV producers receive upwards of a thousand directives informing them which topics are forbidden. For these producers, the daily routine consists of "wracking their brains for ways to frame their pitches so that the higher-ups won’t reject them, then walking a tightrope while doing their best not to get their superiors in trouble."
Wang continued, "During the 10 years I worked for CCTV, our national media went from being a respected institution to a reviled one." His CCTV colleagues echoed his verdict. One senior editor told me in private, "These days we’re embarrassed to wear the official logo when we go out in public. We’re afraid someone’s going to yell, ‘Look, it’s that pack of liars.’" Another colleague corrected him, saying that the epithet du jour is not "liars" but "rumormongers."
The label derives from CCTV’s sordid role in the government’s campaign against online "rumormongering" during the second half of 2013. After Charles Xue — a so-called "Big V," meaning an influential Weibo user with many followers — was arrested in August of that year, CCTV flooded its constituent channels with coverage of his alleged dalliances with prostitutes. It was Wang’s outspoken criticism of these methods that eventually led to his dismissal. "These past two weeks have been a disgrace for CCTV," Wang wrote in reference to the Xue case. "We’ve sidestepped the law, let the powers that be rape our journalistic standards, and set in motion a machine designed to crack down on online ‘rumormongering’ … Combatting rumormongering is a good thing, but it must be done in accordance with the law, and guilt must be assigned in accordance with legal procedure. Otherwise we’re holding ourselves above the law." He also noted, "The media is not a court of law. Why are we meddling in legal affairs? Who gives us the authority decide who’s a ‘Big V’ and who’s a rumormonger?"
In Oct. 2013 Chen Yongzhou, a reporter for the Guangdong-based newspaper New Express, exposed financial irregularities at a publicly traded company based in Changsha, a large city in central China. The company reported Chen to the Changsha police, who then detained him in a trans-provincial arrest. Days later, viewers nationwide watched Chen, still in custody, confess on a CCTV news program to having accepted bribes. CCTV framed the story as a cautionary tale, a warning to journalists not to deviate from their professional code of ethics. And yet CCTV was violating this very same code by forcing a confession out of Chen before he had been put on trial. CCTV not only trampled on the law, it humiliated Chen and violated the standards of ethical journalism.
Since then, the tactic of using television coverage to force confessions out of suspects before legal proceedings has become common practice at CCTV. Victims of this tactic include blogger Dong Rubin, aka "Bian Min;" 70-year-old veteran journalist Gao Yu, arrested on suspicion of "leaking state secrets" to foreign media; Guo Meimei, whose conduct caused the Chinese Red Cross to suffer an unprecedented credibility crisis; and Wang Zhuoming, one of the reporters arrested in connection with the 21st Century Net extortion scandal.
The increasingly common sight of detained suspects hanging their heads and admitting their guilt on air has earned CCTV the nickname "Central People’s Court." Repentant convicts wearing prison uniforms, in handcuffs, or with their heads shaved call to mind China’s age-old tradition of parading criminals through the streets. This seems to be a new model of law enforcement: first suspects are arrested, then they are interrogated, then they are made to confess on CCTV. An online commentator summed up the current legal procedure as follows: "[A person is] arrested for Crime A, put on TV for Crime B, then convicted of Crime C." I propose a new name for this pattern, in which handcuffed detainees offer televised confessions to arbitrary charges: getting "pantsed." This is a reference to the popular sobriquet for CCTV’s oddly shaped headquarters, which many Chinese call "the big pants." Some have even joked that CCTV should start a new program entirely dedicated to such confessions.
All of these criminal suspects have a right to demand a fair trial conducted in accordance with national law. CCTV, in ignoring this, is blatantly trampling on the rule of law. This is a classic case of trial by media, a direct violation of China’s criminal law code, which forbids self-incrimination and determining guilt before the accused has been tried. It is, in effect, a verdict without a trial.
In his farewell post, CCTV producer Wang aptly warned, "We have a new building, new facilities, and correspondents all over the world, but that does not mean we have everything. What we are gradually losing are our credibility and our influence."