VANCOUVER—A member of the special parliamentary committee on Canada-China relations says this country should consider following in the footsteps of the United States and forcing state-owned media outlets from mainland China to register as foreign missions.
That means they would be considered the same as embassies and consulates instead of media outlets.
Garnett Genuis, a Conservative MP from Alberta, said Chinese state-owned media outlets should be studied as part of other efforts to determine how Beijing is trying to influence Canadian society. The developments in the U.S. hold a “convincing logic,” he said.
“One of the issues the Canada-China committee needs to dig into is concerns about influence and infiltration,” Genuis said. “That applies to a wide variety of state-backed, state-directed entities, so I think this is one area that should be a part of that agenda for studying consideration.”
The committee on Canada-China relations was formed to examine all aspects of Ottawa and Beijing’s relations due to recent turmoil in the relationship and questions about China’s activities in Canada.
Concerns over China have also been a focus in Washington D.C., where last week, the U.S. State Department said it will be treating Chinese state media outlets as foreign missions.
The designation means China’s state media must adhere to the same administrative requirements as embassies, such as disclosing their staff rosters and real estate holdings. The U.S. State Department said the move should not hinder journalistic endevours.
In a statement to The Star, the department named five state-run broadcasters from China operating in the U.S., saying the news organizations are “effectively controlled by the Chinese government” due to their ownership structures.
It listed Xinhua News Agency, China Global Television Network, China Radio International, China Daily, and Hai Tian as the organizations with which Washington is concerned. Some of the five also run operations in Canada, including bureaus in Ottawa for the People’s Daily and Xinhua. CGTN is available in Canada on cable.
Global Affairs Canada said it is monitoring the situation in the U.S.
In what observers say was retaliation, China expelled three U.S. journalists from the Wall Street Journal, blaming them for a headline Beijing claims was racist. Geng Shuang, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, called the U.S. move “wrong,” likening it to cold-war thinking.
“The U.S. touts its press freedom,” Geng said Feb. 19. “However, it is wantonly restricting and thwarting Chinese media outlets' normal operation there. This is totally unjustified and unacceptable.”
But what “normal operations” are for Chinese state media are part of the reason the U.S. argues they should register as foreign missions. In Canada, there have been a number of controversies over those operations.
In 2011, a senior state-media journalist told the Star on the condition of anonymity China “routinely” places state agents in news bureaus around the world to gather intelligence. The source said a number of the reporters their outlet had sent abroad had no prior reporting experience.
A year later in 2012 Mark Bourrie, a Canadian journalist and author working on Parliament Hill, quit his job writing for Xinhua after he was asked to gather information on the Dalai Lama’s visit to Ottawa and told it wouldn’t be used in news articles. Bourrie went public with the story in Canadian media.
In 2014, the then-Conservative government banned two of China’s state media outlets from a tour of Canada’s Arctic due to “past incidents and behaviours,” according to the Associated Press.
More recently, international human rights organization Safeguard Defenders filed a complaint with the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission over the broadcasting of what it says are forced confessions on China Global Television Network.
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Safeguard Defenders filed another round of complaints in the United Kingdom on Tuesday arguing CGTN is owned by a political body and therefore not allowed to broadcast in the U.K.
Sean Holman, a professor of journalism at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said freedom of expression and press freedom concerns would surely play a role for China’s state media in Canada.
Earlier this month, the Liberal government asserted it will not move to licence media in Canada after uproar over comments made by Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault had some suggesting it would seek government regluation of journalistic organizations.
But, Holman said there’s a case for limits to press freedoms and Canada would need to ask if the work being done by outlets like Xinhua have earned protection.
“They’re undermining the democratic principles and democratic governments that freedom of speech and freedom of expression depend upon,” Holman said. “In that context, are they deserving of the kind of rights and freedoms that would be afforded to an organization that characterizes itself as being a journalistic organization?”
Charles Burton, a China expert and former diplomat with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, said the answer is no.
Burton said while he isn’t sure what it would look like if China’s state media is denied the same status as other foreign media by having to register in Canada, past incidents suggest they should not be treated as regular media.
“Why does the government of Canada tolerate the activities of agents of the Chinese state who are engaged in activities which are not consistent with their status in our country?” he said. “I would assume that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service should be aware of the activities of these people.”
Burton said, unlike other government funded news services like the CBC and BBC, often reporters for China’s state media abroad don’t file news stories regularly, raising questions about what they are actually doing.
Genuis said he, too, doesn’t think China’s state media in Canada perform the same function as other media. But he wants to see more study on the area before making a decision.
“The work that someone like (the Star) does as an independent journalist in a free society asking me whatever questions you want to ask me is fundamentally different than the sort of corporate communications function played by state-controlled media entities,” Genuis said. “I understand it’s complicated and there may be some challenges in there as well, which is why I’m not prejudging the conclusion.”