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Democracies Need “Reciprocity Mechanism” to Combat Propaganda by Authoritarian Regimes

CGTN, the Chinese state TV broadcaster export freely it's propaganda to western countries - Credit: RSF
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Reporters Without Borders

Legal action in Europe involving China Global Television Network (CGTN), the Chinese state TV broadcaster, has highlighted the degree to which despotic governments export their propaganda while barring independent news media domestically.

Democracies must respond to this dangerous imbalance by imposing the same positive obligations on foreign media as on their own media. Reciprocity is entirely legitimate.

Decisions involving CGTN have shown the need for urgent measures by democracies to rectify this imbalance and give themselves mechanisms for countering propaganda by authoritarian countries. The spearhead of Beijing’s international propaganda and directly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda department since 2018, CGTN broadcasts in English throughout the world, but foreign media broadcasting within China is extremely restricted. 

CGTN has been the subject of contradictory decisions in democratic countries in recent months. The British media regulator Ofcom (Office of Communications) withdrew CGTN’s license to broadcast in the United Kingdom in February and fined it in March for broadcasting a forced confession by former journalist Peter Humphrey . But France’s High Council for Broadcasting (CSA) ruled on 3 March that, since foreign satellite TV channels do not require prior permission under French law, CGTN can continue to be “broadcast freely, without prior formality” by the French satellite operator Eutelsat. 

Under the EU directive on broadcast media and the Council of Europe’s European Convention on Transfrontier Television, this CSA ruling effectively allows CGTN to continue disseminating its propaganda throughout Europe. In Germany, for example, CGTN was banned from cable distribution following the Ofcom decision but was restored after the CSA decision. This situation illustrates the limits on the resources available to democracies for opposing Beijing’s aggressive propaganda.

The new globalization of information, made possible by technological developments and their low cost, has in theory abolished the barriers to entering each country’s information arena. This is good news if it makes the world a more open place and increases pluralism. But if despotic regimes don’t play the game, the globalization of information can reinforce the worst forms of information control, allowing them to maintain the barriers to entry while exporting content under their control.

In democratic countries, the news media enjoy (more or less satisfactory) laws safeguarding their freedom, independence and pluralism. They can broadcast without prior control and the domestic media arena is open to foreign media. Unfortunately, as recent developments involving CGTN have shown, state-owned (and non-public) media based in other countries and under the direct control of authoritarian governments can exploit this system to broadcast content that violates journalism’s most basic principles.

To defend journalism worthy of the name, RSF urges democratic governments to impose the same obligations on media broadcasting from abroad as on domestic broadcasters. To be allowed to use their frequencies, foreign broadcast media must undertake to respect certain basic standards, including honesty, pluralism and respect for human dignity, and be subject to sanctions if they fail to comply.

The asymmetry between open democratic countries with journalistic freedom, on the one hand, and authoritarian countries that control information and export propaganda, on the other, undermines journalism and, more broadly, the reliability of information, which supposes freedom, independence and pluralism. This asymmetry give dictatorships a competitive advantage over democracies without serving the cause of journalism, which the dictatorships block domestically while exporting their propaganda.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) believes that a system of reciprocity based on the universal principles of freedom of expression and information would be entirely legitimate. To avoid providing propaganda with a competitive advantage, democratic countries could condition the opening of their domestic media space on the opening of the media space within the countries of the despotic governments. Rather than reinforce the closure and isolation of media spaces, this “reciprocity mechanism on the basis of universal principles” would aim to encourage more openness and respect for universal principles.

The democracies must equip themselves with effective mechanisms for countering propaganda by authoritarian governments, which aims to crush journalism,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “Protective measures are legitimate and even necessary, although care must obviously be taken to ensure that at no time do they restrict journalistic freedom, independence and pluralism. The globalization of news and information can constitute an enormous step forward for humanity as long as the international system does not provide dictatorships and their propaganda media with a competitive advantage over the democracies and their free and independent media. ”

The Comprehensive Agreement on Investment which the EU and China reached in principle in December 2020 and which is now pending ratification by the European Parliament and EU member countries is, in this respect, entirely inadequate and imbalanced. It allows China to invest in the media sector in Europe, but its appendixes restrict any possibility of European companies investing in the media sector, either broadcast or print media, in China. The EU cannot accept such an imbalance.

China is ranked 177th out of 180 countries in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index. In a 2019 report entitled “China’s Pursuit of a New World Media Order,” RSF described the strategy used by Beijing to influence and control the media beyond its borders, a project that poses a threat to press freedom throughout the world.

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