China’s broadcasting regulator on Thursday banned BBC World News, accusing it of flouting guidelines after a controversial report on its treatment of the country’s Uighur minority.
The decision came just days after Britain’s own regulator revoked the licence of Chinese broadcaster CGTN for breaking UK law on state-backed ownership, and provoked angry accusations of censorship from London.
The move will do little to improve relations between the two countries, which have been increasingly strained by China’s introduction of a security law in Britain’s former colony, Hong Kong.
Britain has also banned Chinese telecoms group Huawei from involvement in its 5G network after the United States raised spying fears.
In an overnight statement, Beijing’s National Radio and Television Administration said BBC World News reports about China were found to “seriously violate" broadcast guidelines.
That includes “the requirement that news should be truthful and fair" and not “harm China’s national interests".
The administrator “does not permit the BBC to continue broadcasting in China, and does not accept its new annual application for broadcast", it added.
The BBC said it was “disappointed" with the move, which applies to mainland China, where the channel is already censored and restricted to international hotels. “The BBC is the world’s most trusted international news broadcaster and reports on stories from around the world fairly, impartially and without fear or favour," a BBC spokeswoman said.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called the ban “an unacceptable curtailing of media freedom".
“China has some of the most severe restrictions on media and internet freedoms across the globe, and this latest step will only damage China’s reputation in the eyes of the world," he added.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price denounced the BBC ban and called on China to allow an “informed citizenry" that can freely exchange ideas. “We call on the PRC and other nations with authoritarian controls over their population to allow their full access to the internet and media," Price told reporters, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
British lawmaker Tom Tugendhat, a hawk on UK-China ties who has formed the China Research Group of like-minded MPs, criticised the move as “both regrettable and entirely unsurprising".
“While this is a largely symbolic tit-for-tat retaliatory move, the deteriorating environment for journalism in China is a concern for us all," he told AFP.
“The (Chinese Communist Party’s) increasingly aggressive approach to foreign media, while promoting its own state media outlets across the globe, is an issue which deserves far more scrutiny."
The BBC has also aired a hard-hitting documentary accusing China of covering up the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic around the city of Wuhan in late 2019.
It aired its report detailing harrowing accounts of torture and sexual violence against Uighur women in Chinese camps on February 3.
The lengthy investigation based on witness testimonies reported claims of systematic rape, sexual abuse and torture of women detainees by police and guards in China’s western region of Xinjiang.
The region is home to the mainly Muslim Uighur minority and has seen a sweeping security crackdown by Chinese forces in recent years in response to separatist unrest.
The report described torture by electric shock, including anal rape by guards using electrified sticks. Women were subject to gang rape and forced sterilisation, witnesses said. “The screams echoed throughout the building," one was quoted as saying.
Rights groups believe at least one million Uighurs and other Turkic-speaking Muslims are incarcerated in camps in Xinjiang.
The Chinese foreign ministry has dismissed the BBC investigation as “false". Britain’s government said it showed “clearly evil acts", and there was strong condemnation from the US State Department.
But London has resisted pressure to follow the current and former US administrations and call the treatment of the Uighurs “genocide".
China is accused of compelling Uighurs to parrot Communist propaganda and renounce Islam, forcibly sterilising women and imposing a regime of forced labour.
After initially denying the camps existed, China’s government abruptly acknowledged them, saying they were vocational training centres aimed at combatting Islamic extremism.
China last week said British regulator Ofcom’s decision to pull CGTN from the airwaves was based on “ideological prejudice and political reasons".
Ofcom said CGTN’s licence holder, Star China Media Ltd, had failed to show it had editorial oversight over the network and that a proposed transfer to another media group would still keep it tied to the Chinese Communist Party.