SCMP Confronted Over Forced Confession Coverage

In February, the Hong Kong-based published an interview with detained publisher Gui Minhai in which he criticized Sweden, his other country of citizenship, for sensationalizing and politicizing his case and using him "like a chess piece." As with its 2016 interview with detained legal assistant Zhao Wei, the Post’s coverage of a prisoner’s politically convenient statements made under likely coercion stirred up worries that the newspaper has become subservient to Beijing following its acquisition in 2015 by mainland tech giant Alibaba.

New York Times’ Javier C. Hernández revisited these fears at the end of March. The piece prompted vigorous discussion, with journalists, academics, activists and others argue both against and in defense of the Post. The Gui interview was a key focus of its critics. Pressed by the BBC’s Stephen McDonnell, former SCMP editor-in-chief Wang Xiangwei agreed that Gui’s confession was forced and that the Post’s coverage "could have been more direct and forceful" on this point.

SCMP’s role in the Gui story was highlighted again last week with the publication of a detailed report, summarized by CDT, into China’s use of forced televised confessions as instruments of domestic propaganda and foreign policy over the past five years. Rights NGO Safeguard Defenders explored the identities of the confessors, the various threats, abuses, and deceits used to coerce them, and the authorities’ motives for doing so. Both Wang Xiangwei and his successor Tammy Tam were personally identified on page 71 of the report as culpable figures at "the first English-language, non-state media that collaborated with the Chinese police to circulate a televised confession."

The report prompted Gui’s daughter Angela to write to Tam seeking explanation. The Post published their exchange on Wednesday:

[…] Reading the report, do you feel any regret? I don’t know if the publicity department at the Communist Party of China called or emailed you, or contacted someone else; but, in the end, as editor in-chief, you decided it was a good idea to send a journalist to cover the “interview”.

The “interview” – a scripted point-by-point rebuttal of the criticism against China’s treatment of my father – might as well have been a statement from the Foreign Ministry. You know this of course. Yet, after dispatched reporter Phila Siu returned, you still decided to run the story, knowing these could not possibly be my father’s own words. Why?

With this report, the torture and threats against loved ones employed in forcing suspects to “confess” have now been laid bare. Does this change anything for you? More than anything, if a similar situation arises, will you make a different decision? […] [Source]

Tam replied:

[…] With regard to your father’s case, I assure you categorically that we did not collaborate with the Chinese authorities to portray your father as speaking freely while in custody, as the report incorrectly alleges. We provided the facts and context, including a photograph showing him between two guards, and our reporter also talked to your father’s friends so as to shed more light on the circumstances. All this allowed our readers to judge for themselves whether he was under duress.

As journalists, we are often faced with difficult decisions. In this case, we were required to choose between interviewing your father in a stage-managed setting and having no access at all. We made the decision to go ahead on news merit, and stand by our professional judgment. We note that other reputable news organisations facing similar controlled circumstances in the region have also proceeded with reporting. […] [Source]

The exchange triggered a new wave of discussion, this time less mixed in tone. The Financial Times’ Wang Feng, an SCMP alumnus, commented:

Cornell University’s Magnus Fiskesjö, a friend of Gui’s, replied:

Others were also critical, including Reuters editor Gerry Doyle and NGO founder Peter Dahlin, whose televised confession in 2016 was featured prominently in the Safeguard Defenders report:

And from others: