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China’s Flagship TV Network Hasn’t Registered as a Foreign Agent

Based in Washington, CCTV America broadcasts Beijing-controlled news to English-speaking households across the United States.

CGTN America/Fair Use
CGTN America/Fair Use

Ongoing investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election have led to increased scrutiny of foreign outlets operating in the United States. The U.S. Justice Department recently ordered RT, the Russian state-backed English-language news organization, to register as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

But one of China’s biggest government-controlled news outlets has not registered its Washington operation as a foreign agent.

In 2012, China Central Television (CCTV), the Chinese state broadcaster, launched an an English-language affiliate headquartered in Washington. CCTV America — recently rebranded as CGTN America — has been described as an attempt by China to spread its soft power globally.

Its coverage of U.S. domestic issues is professional and not clearly slanted in one direction or another. But any China-related reports strictly follow Chinese Communist Party media guidelines, presenting China as a positive, peaceful force whose geopolitical interests are righteous.

For example, in July 2016, China’s island-building in the contested South China Sea came under international scrutiny when a Hague-based international tribunal ruled against most of Beijing’s claims there; Washington has also urged Beijing to follow international law with respect to the disputed waterway. After the court issued its ruling, CGTN America referred to the ruling as a “so-called award” and presented the U.S. position as hypocritical and aimed at containing China.

The network’s coverage of the Uighur ethnic minority in northwest China is especially telling. Human rights groups have expressed alarm at the Chinese government’s campaigns of extreme oppression and forced assimilation in the Uighur homeland of Xinjiang, where Beijing has rolled out a new regime of omnipresent digital surveillance involving ubiquitous video cameras, face-recognition technology, and a complete DNA registry of the entire population.

How does CGTN America portray the region? “There is a renewed focus on breaking down ethnic barriers and promoting a shared national identity and economic benefits,” goes one characteristic report. “Mandarin-instruction for all is seen as key.”

While CGTN America has not registered as a foreign agent, a public relations company that worked on behalf of the network’s U.S. division has filed Foreign Agents Registration Act paperwork. In late 2011, just ahead of the channel’s American launch, CCTV signed a $15,000-a-month contract with Ogilvy Public Relations to “communicate to the American public that CCTV America will provide compelling, comprehensive, and balanced news programming from an Asian perspective that is relevant to a global audience.”

In forms filed with the Justice Department in 2012, Ogilvy said CCTV America was supervised, owned, directed, controlled, financed, and subsidized by a foreign principal. “CCTV falls under the supervision of the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television, which is in turn subordinate to the State Council of the People’s Republic of China,” Ogilvy said in its FARA filing. An Ogilvy spokesperson told Foreign Policy this was a “short-term project with CCTV America.” According to contract documents filed with the Justice Department, Ogilvy signed a three-month contract lasting the first quarter of 2012.

For its work on behalf of CCTV, Ogilvy Public Relations declared itself as a foreign agent.

FARA was first passed in 1938 to counter Nazi propaganda in the United States, and it is meant to provide some basic disclosure about an outlet’s operations. The law was intended “not to stymie that speech, but to make it so that people could know that it was a foreign government behind that speech,” said Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the nonprofit Center for International Policy.

FARA registration can be onerous to media outlets. “It is a lot of information you have to file. It’s a lot of record-keeping,” explained Freeman.

The Department of Justice also faces barriers in enforcing FARA. The department lacks civil investigative demand authority for the statute, Freeman said. That means, for example, that it cannot subpoena media outlets for emails that would show foreign government direction not otherwise publicly evident.

Registration may also interfere with a media outlet’s operations. In RT’s case, the congressional press office stripped the outlet of its media credentials, which reduces its access to American lawmakers.

FARA includes an exception for government-affiliated media outlets that are editorially independent. That’s why the British Broadcasting Corporation, which is funded by a foreign government but isn’t under state editorial control, doesn’t have to register under FARA, but RT America does; the U.S. government says that Moscow directs the channel to broadcast anti-American content.

An RT spokesperson denied this claim, telling FP, “We do not agree with RT America being forced to register under FARA. We have done so because the alternative posed a serious risk to our team and operations.”

Press freedom organizations have decried the registration requirement, arguing that it gives an excuse for authoritarian regimes to crack down on speech. “We’re uncomfortable with governments deciding what constitutes journalism or propaganda,” said Alexandra Ellerbeck, North America program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, in a Nov. 13 statement.

In December, in retaliation for RT’s FARA registration, Russia labeled nine U.S.-backed media outlets, including Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, as foreign agents under a newly amended law.

CGTN America is open about its connection to China’s state-controlled broadcaster, which carefully follows party guidance for its coverage. When asked about its FARA status, CGTN America declined to comment.

Some Chinese government-controlled outlets in the United States have already registered. China Daily, a state-run English-language newspaper that is widely available on street corners across the United States, first filed under FARA in 1983.

A November report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission called for employees of Chinese state-run media outlets to register as foreign agents, citing instances of illegal information-gathering and foreign government influence on public opinion. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman denounced the report as “sheer fiction.”

It’s unclear why the Department of Justice has not yet directed CGTN America to register.

“The Department of Justice is committed to enforcing the Foreign Agents Registration Act vigorously, to ensure that Americans understand who is acting to influence the U.S. government or public on behalf of a foreign principal,” said Department of Justice spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle in a statement to FP.

“When we learn any person or organization — including a media organization and regardless of any particular nationality — is engaged in activities within the scope of the statute, the Department will take necessary and appropriate measures to ensure compliance with the law.”

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy. @BethanyAllenEbr

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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