09 Jul 2020

Orwellian States: Iran’s Forced Confessions look a lot like China’s

Rape and execution threats, flogging, electrocution, torturing family members within earshot, and breaking teeth are just some of the ways Iran forces prisoners to confess on camera.

This is according to a new report out by NGO Justice for Iran (JFI) that scoured broadcasts by state media and conducted interviews with 13 victims, including two on death row via mobile phones smuggled into their jail cell.

The report comes out just as China’s Party-State TV CGTN were found guilty of airing forced confessions in the UK; media watchdog Ofcom, is currently considering what penalty to impose: fine or license removal. [Read story here]

In the Iranian report, Orwellian State, the NGO wrote that they had found records of 355 detained individuals who had been forced to confess on Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) or its subsidiaries including the English-language Press TV on 151 programmes between 2009 and 2019.

The types of people targeted for forced confessions included activists (of almost any cause from political to labour, children’s rights to environmental), writers and journalists, women’s rights defenders, ethnic and religious minorities, dual nationals and foreigners. Crimes accused include connection to “foreign powers”, terrorism, separatism, and sexual immorality.

What immediately stood out from this report was how closely Iran’s forced confessions resembled those made by China.

The two authoritarian countries:

  • systematically extract confessions from prisoners, often before trial, through torture, threats and lies;
  • script, direct and film the footage;
  • use some victims to defame and discredit others;
  • use state media and their overseas channels to air them;
  • vilify victims for colluding with foreign powers against the state; and,
  • break local and international laws on due process and human rights in making and airing these confessions.

There were some differences; the two most obvious ones being the added layer of religious morality and the threat of using the death penalty (for insulting the prophet) in the Iranian cases.

Our 2018 report, Scripted and Staged: Behind the Scenes of China’s Forced Televised Confessions can be read here (scroll down).

Here are the main takeaways from the report with a comparison with China.


These broadcasts are not one-off events; they are systematically made and systematically aired

There are dozens and dozens of broadcasts. JFI found 355 confessions over 11 years (2009-2019) while Safeguard Defenders documented around 90 individuals confessing on Chinese TV between 2013 and 2018 and likely many more low-profile cases that were not detected. The methods used to extract and film these are also across the board similar and therefore, also systematic.


The primary media for broadcasting confessions is state media AND their foreign-language overseas arms

Both countries used their state media channels and their overseas branches as the primary media of broadcast. In Iran, this is the IRIB and its global English-language station Press TV. In China, this is China Central Television Network (CCTV) and its global English-language CGTN and global Chinese-language CCTV-4 channels.

JFI describes IRIB as no longer being a media channel but a “means of mass suppression.”


Victims in both countries are seen as “enemies” of the regime

Both countries targeted rights lawyers, activists, journalists, ethnic minorities (Kurds, Arabs and Turks in Iran; Uighur Muslims in China) and foreigners. In Iran, sexual minorities and non-Muslims were also targets; while in China we also saw some accused of regular financial crimes.


A combination of torture and threats are used to extract filmed confessions

Both countries used mental and physical torture and threats to loved ones to coerce the victim to confess on camera. In Iran, this included physical torture (beatings, electrocution, suspended from handcuffs); prolonged interrogations, being drugged, threatening to expose immoral actions to family members, punishing family members (beatings, arrest); threats to kill or impose the death sentence. Prolonged solitary confinement, or detention in squalid conditions with violent prisoners are also used to weaken the victim’s resolve. There is considerable overlap with China’s methods, which also include physical torture, mental torture, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, and use of forced medication.

“While I remained blindfolded and handcuffed, several individuals armed with cables, batons, and their fists struck and punched me. At times, they would flog my head and neck and other body parts… Sometimes they threatened that they would arrest my wife and torture her in front of me.”

Saeed Malekpour, a Canadian resident, arrested in 2008 for allegedly making adult content websites and sentenced to death. He was eventually released in 2019.

“They kept repeating false sexual accusations […]. An agent, who called himself Sadeghi, threatened me and said, ‘if you don’t say what we ask you to, I’ll bring your brother here, and I know that you have a traditional family. Your brother will cut your head off.”

Sepideh Gholian, a labour activist, arrested in 2018


Police conceal that the footage will be broadcast on TV

In both countries, the police tell the victim that the recording is needed for senior staff to decide on their case and is for internal use only. In many cases, the victims only find out they have been put on TV once they are released or they have finally met with a lawyer.


Police script and stage the whole confession with the cooperation of media

Many confessions are scripted and controlled by the police (in Iran also by IRIB). In China, the police handle the script, while CCTV cooperate and take direction from the police. Victims are asked to memorise their answers. In one case, victims in Iran talked about their “lines” being written on a whiteboard, in China it was a piece of paper or a device like a teleprompter. In both countries, victims were told how to speak, and when there was a mistake they would go back and reshoot. They were told to speak naturally and in some cases smile. The intended effect was to “pretend” the victims were confessing willingly.

In some of Iran’s cases, the victims were made to look like they were not devout Muslims, for example one described how he had to shave off his beard, while one woman said she was told to take off her veil and expose some hair under her scarf for the cameras.

China, which does not have this religious morality aspect, did change the appearance of some victims for the camera, usually to make them look less like prisoners, perhaps to make it look like they were willingly giving their confession. For example, while some confessors keep their detention centre jumpsuits on, human rights lawyers and activists were increasingly shown in civilian clothes and asked to groom their appearance before filming.


The confessions are packaged to build a case against the victim

Both Iran and China package the confession into an in-depth segment that includes other interviews, graphics and analysis used to build a case against the victim. In Iran, this could be a lengthy documentary style feature programme or a news report. In China, the latter was more often the case, but these segments could also be up to 20 minutes long. They are full packages that guide the viewer into taking the regime’s side; in other words, full-on propaganda. This illustrates the extent of the cooperation state media make with the security forces in both countries.

JFI describes IRIB as operating in “close collaboration with judicial, military, paramilitary, and intelligence organisations.”


Forced confessions are used to cripple dissent, spread fear, discredit victims in eyes of public, justify arrests

The reasons for coercing confessions are similar in both regimes. JFI lists five key reasons:

  1. Demoralising civil society (other would-be activists become too afraid to continue when they see what could happen to them);
  2. Spin the discourse (smear the victims so that they lose all public support, they lose their reputation);
  3. Justification for suppressive measures (as proof the victim is guilty thus ward off criticism of arrest);
  4. Evidential basis for conviction (used as evidence in court of victim’s guilt); and,
  5. Emotional pressure (a way to inflict form of torture and punishment).

These are all also seen in China’s televised confessions; particularly in the cases of some high-profile and overseas victims, the confessions are seen as addressing a foreign audience and rebutting criticism.


Putting an end to forced confessions

Top executives at IRIB have been sanctioned by the EU and the US Treasury Department for broadcasting forced confessions; while Britain’s media watchdog Ofcom revoked Press TV's license, also in part, for broadcasting a forced confession.

On 6 July 2020, Ofcom judged CGTN guilty of broadcasting two forced confessions of Brit Peter Humphrey and breaking its codes on fairness and privacy; it is now deciding on which penalty to impose. It is still investigating several remaining complaints against CGTN for their broadcast of forced confessions. Safeguard Defenders has filed or assisted in these complaints and also applications for similar sanctions against CGTN and CCTV-4 (CCTV's overseas Chinese-language channel) n Canada and the US. Read our detailed backgrounder and timeline here.