The release of a Chinese freelance journalist after he "confessed" to his crimes on state television has sparked calls for international sanctions against Beijing, as activists hit out at a growing trend for televised confessions of those who fall foul of the authorities.
Xiang Nanfu, who had previously written stories for the overseas-based Chinese-language news website Boxun, was released on Tuesday on "parole," although no trial was ever held, nor formal sentence passed.
The Paris-based media freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said the practice had been used in a number of high-profile detentions of journalists and commentators recently and constituted a violation of the detainees' right to a fair trial.
"Reporters Without Borders calls on the European Council to sanction state-owned CCTV13's executives for violating his right to a fair trial by broadcasting his forced confession in order to incriminate him," the group said in a statement following Xiang's release.
Xiang was initially detained on May 3 and accused of receiving money from overseas organizations, as well as contributing stories on government land grabs and black-market transplant organ trafficking, which had allegedly damaged China's reputation, RSF said.
His televised confession that he "smeared the party and the government" was shown by state broadcaster CCTV on May 13.
As they released Xiang, police issued a statement saying that he was being released on parole—which often carries behavioral conditions like not speaking to foreign media—because of poor health and a "relatively good attitude."
Veteran journalist Gao Yu was subjected to a similar televised confession just five days before Xiang's.
The tactic, aimed at discrediting journalists and opinion-makers, was also used with journalist Chen Yongzhou in November 2013 and with big-name tweeter and businessman Charles Xue two months earlier, RSF said.
"We call on the European Council to adopt sanctions against CCTV13 and its executives...for broadcasting these forced confessions," the group said in a statement on its website.
"This is intolerable on the part of a news organization, even one controlled by the state."
It said the EU has previously taken sanctions against Iranian officials after finding that they had denied detainees the right to a fair trial in a similar manner.
Hsu Wei-ch'un, who heads the nongovernmental group Taiwan Democracy Watch, said China's use of televised confessions is often linked to high-profile individuals.
"In reality...this is a form of forced confession, and is not at all in keeping with international human rights standards," Hsu told RFA. "The person has had no access to a legal defense.
"The media in such circumstances are being used as a tool...I think they should take a more critical stance in such circumstances," he said.
Hsu said such confessions aren't always highly influential in forming public opinion, however.
"Such methods...in particular will draw attention to the political background to these [confessions]," he said.
Back to the Cultural Revolution
Huang Pin, editor in chief of the Czech-based Chinese-language site cenews.eu, said a string of recent detentions of journalists and bloggers showed a largely political campaign under way rather than a series of judicial actions.
"It feels as if we're back to the methods of the Cultural Revolution [1966-1976]," Huang said, referring to the decade of political turmoil and violence orchestrated by then supreme leader Mao Zedong. "They are tightening their control over ideology."
Lawyers told RFA that article 12 of China's criminal law states that "no-one who has not yet undergone trial needs to confess their guilt."
Huang said EU sanctions were unlikely to have much impact on China, however.
"China's economy is performing so strongly at the moment, and its political influence is also very strong," he said. "We would predict that any EU action is unlikely to have much impact."
Hangzhou-based veteran journalist Zan Aizong said the procedures used in Xiang's and Gao's cases are fairly typical of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"If they government wants to go after certain people with an online following, or against big-name tweeters, then CCTV, as the official mouthpiece, will definitely have to toe the line," Zan said.
"There is no press freedom in China: only the freedom to do as you are told."
Huang said such practices look set to intensify in the near future.
"One of the major trends right now is for the government to intensify its control over ideology," he said. "I don't see any sign of a turnaround in the use of such methods."
He said the tendency is being fueled in part by President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign.
"There are some good things about the anti-corruption campaign, but that's not the case with ideological and religious controls," Huang said.
"Campaigns like that against crosses on churches in Wenzhou have left people upset,” he said. “Things like that are very disappointing."
China ranked 175th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index.
Reported by Wen Jian for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ho Shan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.