BEIJING — The headline news on state-run Chinese Channel 13 was juicy: A mining tycoon and 35 others had been charged with running a mafia-style enterprise in Sichuan province, gunning down enemies in the street, bribing people and operating an illegal casino.
But viewers didn't have to just listen to police or prosecutors describe the evidence against the three dozen suspects: CCTV aired extensive clips of many of them, dressed in blue jailhouse jackets, admitting their misdeeds.
"After I killed [a man who opposed one of our deals], I was fine, didn't face any problems," said Tang Xianbing. "I became more bold. I didn't fear anything, including killing people."
"Many people know that we killed the owner of the gaming arcade," said another suspect, Zheng Jianjun. "Afterward, no one came to arrest us."
It was unclear whether it was law enforcement authorities or CCTV that recorded the interviews for the 30-minute segment that ran in late February. No attorneys for the suspects were interviewed or quoted during the program, and it was unclear whether the accused knew their statements would be aired.
The show ended, not too subtlety, with a shot of tycoon Liu Han in an orange jail vest, head down, being escorted into a detention facility and the doors closing.
The broadcast was the latest in a string of televised confessions that have raised alarm among Chinese attorneys as well as media watchers who say police, prosecutors and reporters are convicting people in the court of public opinion for political ends.
"This is totally inappropriate," said Liu Xiaoyuan, a lawyer whose clients have included the dissident artist Ai Weiwei. "It's against the principle of innocent until proved guilty, and the media is giving the verdict before a court does."
State-run TV often runs confessions from people accused of petty crimes such as robbery and prostitution. But in the last year, many more high-profile confessions have been broadcast. In a number of cases, people who have not even been formally charged with crimes have appeared on TV, admitting to breaking the law.
Liang Hong, an employee of British drug company GlaxoSmithKline, said on CCTV that his company had bribed doctors. Chinese American investor and high-profile blogger Charles Xue apologized for visiting prostitutes and spreading negative information online. He has yet to be set free, or charged, more than five months after being detained.
Journalist Chen Yongzhou, his hands in cuffs, said on TV that he accepted bribes to let someone else write articles under his name that smeared a heavy-machinery company.
Others have resisted. Zhou Ze, attorney for journalist Liu Hu, told foreign media in October that police interrogators had offered to release his client in exchange for saying on TV that his news report detailing corruption allegations against an official was false. He refused and faces trial.
"CCTV is serving as an instrument of political power; the law is not the priority, the political agenda is primary here," said Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.
In November, CCTV producer Wang Qinglei resigned and posted an open letter online criticizing the airing of the confession by investor Xue and lamenting the heavy hand of propaganda officials in the broadcaster's programming.
"In the space of a year, we get upward of a thousand propaganda orders," he wrote in the posting, which was quickly deleted by censors. "How many of these orders are issued in the national interest, and how many are issued to serve the political and economic interests of some individual, group or leader?"
China does not have a jury system, but Liu Xiaoyuan, the lawyer, said such broadcasts do have an effect on judges.
"The police want to guide the public opinion, and judges will feel a lot of pressure to render guilty verdicts," Liu said. "If they give a not-guilty verdict, it's difficult to face the public."
Liu questioned why CCTV has access to police interrogations and why reporters have been allowed to visit detainees before trial when lawyers and even family members often have trouble meeting with suspects.
Last year, Liu said, he represented a village chief in Fujian province who was accused of mafia-style crimes. "I got the case quite late, and I read all these media reports on the case. I thought, wow, this guy does sound guilty."
But after researching the evidence, Liu said, "I found much of it had been exaggerated, was extremely dated, or amounted to personal disputes."
Liu said he contacted journalists who had reported on the case and asked how they found so many details. "They just said that the police handed them all the information," he said. His client was convicted and is appealing.
A number of observers regard the cases of the blogger and the journalists as part of a campaign by party officials to crack down on domestic media and online opinion leaders seen as getting too big (and critical) for their britches.
In the extensive coverage of the Sichuan province mafia case, however, professor Zhan and others see a connection to long-swirling rumors involving Zhou Yongkang, domestic security czar under the previous president, Hu Jintao.
Zhou served as party chief in Sichuan during some of the time that the alleged Liu Han mafia was supposedly running amok. Zhou was also a political ally of Bo Xilai, the former party chief of Chongqing. Bo — a rival of current President Xi Jinping — was sentenced last year to life in prison on charges of corruption, bribery and abuse of power.
"This Liu Han program was actually rather unusual in that it showed so much corruption involving politicians. When you look at it, the question to ask is, who was behind Liu [Han]? That's Zhou," Zhan said.
Last week, the Chinese business magazine Caixin reported that one of Liu Han's business partners was a man named Zhou Bin. Zhou Bin is Zhou Yongkang's elder son.
"This shows there's a fierce internal political struggle in China right now," Zhan said. "Before Chinese New Year [which began in late January], there were all kinds of rumors that Zhou would be formally put on trial. That didn't happen. Now, though, you see such programs coming out, and it's a way of building pressure on Zhou."
Tommy Yang of The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times