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Epoch Times on the ropes after money-laundering charges laid

The newspaper is one of the world’s most notorious far-right propaganda publications

Media USA Politics

A man holds a copy of the Epoch Times at the “Million MAGA March” at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, November 14, 2020. Photo by Elvert Barnes/Wikimedia Commons.

Where Ottawa refused to block unwanted distribution of one of the world’s most notorious far-right propaganda publications here a few years ago, US prosecutors have now stepped in with charges that allege the Epoch Times newspaper has been involved in an epic money-laundering scheme. The New York-based non-profit publication is printed in Toronto and Vancouver and distributed in this country, even sometimes appearing unsolicited in the mailboxes of Canadians. Postal workers in Toronto asked the minister responsible for Canada Post in 2021 to issue an order halting delivery of a special coronavirus edition of the newspaper as hate speech, but the request was refused. The eight-page edition was headlined “How the Chinese Communist Party Endangered the World” and included an editorial arguing that the coronavirus should be called the “CCP virus” after the Chinese Communist Party along with a column that questioned whether the virus had been created as a Chinese bioweapon. Founded in 2000, the Epoch Times is closely associated with the Falun Gong religious movement, which is banned in China. It publishes newspapers and/or websites in 21 languages in 35 countries but is blocked in China, and is known for its harsh criticism of the CCP and support for far-right politicians in Europe and former US President Donald Trump.

The United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York alleged this week that Epoch Times Media Group chief financial officer Guan Weidong was part of a “sprawling, transnational scheme” that brought in US$67 million ($91 million). Guan has been charged with one count of conspiring to commit money laundering and two counts of bank fraud. A spokesperson for the Epoch Times told CBC News in an email that it would co-operate with any investigation and that Guan has been suspended “until this matter is resolved.” The charges allege that members of the newspaper’s “Make Money Online” team, which Guan managed, used stolen personal information to launder illegally obtained funds through bank accounts and by using prepaid debit card and cryptocurrency accounts. “After the crime proceeds reached those bank accounts, they were often further laundered through other bank accounts held by the media entities, Guan’s personal bank accounts, and through Guan’s personal cryptocurrency accounts,” the DA alleged in a statement.

For years, the Epoch Times was a low-budget newspaper distributed for free on New York street corners and in newspaper boxes in Canada, but the New York Times reported in 2020 that it had grown “by relying on sketchy social media tactics [and] pushing dangerous conspiracy theories.” The Times found that the upstart newspaper made two key changes that “transformed it into one of the country’s most powerful digital publishers.” It first embraced the newly-elected Trump in 2016, adopting him as an ally in Falun Gong’s “scorched-earth fight” against the CCP. “Its relatively staid coverage of US politics became more partisan, with more articles explicitly supporting Mr. Trump and criticizing his opponents.” It then “bet big on another powerful American institution: Facebook.” Its novel strategy involved creating dozens of Facebook pages, “filling them with feel-good videos and viral clickbait, and using them to sell subscriptions and drive traffic back to its partisan news coverage.” Its Facebook strategy was hoped to turn the Epoch Times into “the world’s largest and most authoritative media,” according to emails obtained by the New York Times, and also to introduce millions to Falun Gong and its mission of “saving sentient beings.”

Other conspiracy theories promoted by the Epoch Times include “Spygate,” which claimed that Obama administration officials illegally spied on Trump’s 2016 campaign, QAnon theories and claims about voter fraud and the Black Lives Matter movement. Former practitioners of Falun Gong have characterized it as an extreme belief system that forbids interracial marriage, condemns homosexuality and discourages the use of modern medicine. Epoch Media Group also owns the cable news network and production company New Tang Dynasty Television, according to the New York Times, and publishes the popular right-wing website America Daily, which “peddles anti-vaccine screeds” and claims that Bill Gates and other elites were “directing” the COVID-19 pandemic and that Jews control the world.

NBC News reported last year that according to tax records the Epoch Times had grown its revenue by a staggering 685 percent in just two years to $122 million in 2021 and had spent millions on advertising to support Trump’s re-election campaign. It published “dozens of articles parroting his lies about the election—resulting in huge growth to its audience and its coffers,” which got it banned from advertising on Facebook, but “ultimately paid off.” The Epoch Times pivoted to video, spending millions on YouTube and according to NBC News also mailed out free copies unsolicited across the US and in Canada and the UK. “In Philadelphia alone in 2020, the company mailed 280,000 free copies of its newspaper, ‘to increase subscription,’ according to tax documents.” A former employee told NBC News that the Epoch Times bought lists of addresses from data brokers of conservatives aged 60 and over and its marketing campaigns paid off, as it reported US$76 million in subscription revenue in 2021, compared to less than US$7 million in 2019. The media organization has been expanding, according to NBC News, leasing 26,680 square feet of office space in Irvine, California, and advertising jobs for experienced journalists to work remotely for salaries of US$40,000 to US$72,000 a year. It is also hiring in Canada, Sweden, Norway and other European countries where it is “cementing itself as a trusted source among the global far-right.”

Its unsolicited mailings prompted Ontario teacher Alanna King to start a petition to MPs and Canada Post in 2020 asking that they be stopped to people who had not requested the newspaper, and it gained more than 9,000 signatures. “I feel like I battle the ideology that feeds hate every single day,” she said, but her petition was denied on the basis of freedom of the press. In 2021, two postal workers in Regina were suspended for three days without pay after refusing to deliver the Epoch Times because they were concerned over the way it touted theories as fact and worried that it was contributing to anti-Chinese racism. Copies of the newspaper, which came advertised as a free sample, were reportedly delivered across Atlantic Canada in early 2021, and had also been delivered in Ontario, Alberta, BC and PEI.

Where the authorities in Canada have been unable or unwilling to stop this propaganda scourge, hopefully the US charges will at least take the wind out of its sails.

Marc Edge is a journalism researcher and author who lives in Ladysmith, BC. His books and articles can be found online at www.marcedge.com.

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