SIX years ago, before most Chinese courts began allowing condemned prisoners to receive a farewell family visit, a provincial television station was gaining privileged access to death row.Its interviews with inmates in their final hours of life became a hit, with millions tuning into the late-evening programmes on Saturdays. Now the station has pulled the plug.
Henan TV has given no explanation for its decision (confirmed by a station employee who refused to go into details). It ends the run of one of the central provinces most widely watched television programmes, unimaginatively but accurately called Interviews Before Execution.
Embarrassment could be a factor. Until last year, the fortnightly series aroused little debate in China, where thousands of people are executed every year. As late as the 1980s condemned prisoners were commonly paraded in public before being taken to an open execution ground to be shot. Recently, however, pre-broadcast publicity surrounding a BBC television documentary about the show, which was aired on March 12th, rattled officials. They apparently worried that the programme might harm Chinas image.
The shows celebrity host, Ding Yu, has defended its approach. Some viewers may consider it cruel to ask a criminal to do an interview when they are about to be executed. On the contrary, they want to be heard, the BBC quoted her as saying. All of the interviewees had been convicted of violent offences, mostly murder. This allowed the award-winning half-hour programme to sidestep the sensitive issue in China of whether the death penalty should be applied to non-violent crimes. During the annual session of Chinas parliament, the National Peoples Congress, which ended on March 14th, several delegates called for the overturn of a death sentence imposed on a wealthy businesswoman, Wu Ying, for running an illegal bank.
Ms Ding, before retreating into cautious silence in recent days, has said all her interviewees took part willingly. Of more than 200 she approached, only five refused. It is not known how many of the prisoners were also allowed to meet their families. Not until 2007 did the Supreme Court rule that lower courts ought to to permit such visits. They still very often do not. Unlike Henan TV, family members often learn the date of an execution only after it has been carried out.
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