The World Health Organization has launched an internal review into the position of one of its celebrity ambassadors who was involved in the airing of an allegedly forced confession on Chinese state television.
The UN agency told the Financial Times it was reviewing the role of James Chau, a high-profile television news anchor with China’s state broadcaster who has been a goodwill ambassador since 2016.
Mr Chau presented a programme on state-owned China Central Television (CCTV) that in 2013 aired a confession by British businessman Peter Humphrey, which he alleges was filmed under duress. Mr Humphrey was sentenced to two and a half years in prison after becoming embroiled in an investigation into pharmaceuticals group GlaxoSmithKline.
Since being deported from China and contesting his conviction for allegedly obtaining information illegally, he has said that journalists from CCTV filmed him reading a fake confession prepared by Chinese police as he sat locked to a chair inside a metal cage.
Safeguard Defenders, a human rights group, has been lobbying the WHO to reconsider Mr Chau’s position over the affair. In its letter to the WHO it accused Mr Chau of having been “involved” in human rights abuses by “packaging and airing forced confessions on television” in China.
In a statement the WHO said: “The matter is taken seriously, as any such complaint would be. It is currently under internal review, and therefore cannot be commented on.”
Neither Mr Chau nor China Global Television Network (CGTN), the international arm of CCTV, responded to requests by the FT for comment.
Scrutiny into Mr Chau’s role comes as the WHO faces criticism for its close relations with China, including its praise for Beijing’s early handling of the coronavirus outbreak. It has since been claimed that Beijing suppressed early warnings by medical professionals and experts.
Taiwan, which is excluded from the WHO as China claims it as part of its territory, has directly accused the body of not sharing early warnings about coronavirus, slowing the global response to the pandemic.
US President Donald Trump last week threatened to withdraw from the WHO unless it demonstrated its independence from China, putting the body at risk of losing its largest donor in the middle of a pandemic.
London-born Mr Chau, a goodwill ambassador for sustainable development goals and health, is one of a select group of WHO brand ambassadors. It also includes Michael Bloomberg, the media billionaire, Liverpool footballer Alisson Becker and Peng Liyuan, wife of China’s president Xi Jinping.
The largely ceremonial role, which is unpaid and renewed every two years, has become popular among many UN agencies that have appointed the likes of Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie and former England footballer David Beckham to spread their messages. Three years ago, the WHO was forced to remove Robert Mugabe, the former Zimbabwean dictator, as one of its goodwill ambassador following outrage from human rights groups.
Mr Chau, who has served as a guest presenter on BBC World News, has more than 1.7m followers on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. The journalist, who attended Cambridge university in the UK, has interviewed the likes of Rwandan president Paul Kagame and singer Elton John. He is a special contributor to CCTV, according to his website.
Mr Chau’s role has previously raised eyebrows as critics have accused CGTN, which last year launched an European branch after establishing bases in Washington and Nairobi, of being a propaganda tool in Beijing’s soft power push.
In the US, the concern has led five Chinese media outlets, including CGTN, to be branded as foreign diplomatic missions, indicating that their journalists operate as propaganda agents for the Chinese state.
In a blow to its international image, CGTN was this week found to have breached the UK broadcasting code by failing to present “alternative viewpoints” to that of Beijing. A second, ongoing investigation that could lead CGTN to lose its UK broadcasting licence, is based on the case of Mr Humphrey.
Additional reporting by Yuan Yang in Beijing