Free copies of the Epoch Times, an international newspaper infamous for pushing far-right conspiracy theories and pro-Trump messaging, appeared on Canadians’ doorsteps last month, leading to numerous complaints from the public and a controversy for Canada Post.
Earlier this month, Ramiro Sepulveda, a postal worker in Regina, Saskatchewan, refused to deliver a sample edition of The Epoch Times and was suspended for three days without pay.
The free edition, which went out to neighbourhoods in Ontario, Saskatchewan, B.C., and the Maritimes, included a section headlined “Communist China’s Silent War Against the West.” It includes a number of older pieces published by Epoch last fall. One article republished from last September claimed that Beijing had “infiltrated almost every major avenue of life in countries like the United States and Canada.”
The front page featured a story alleging that donations from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg benefited the Democratic Party and were used to “undermine” the U.S. presidential election. An op-ed by conservative commentator Conrad Black called COVID-19 a “most brilliant and imaginative geopolitical offensive” by the Chinese government.
When he saw the paper in his work cart, Sepulveda “immediately thought it was trash,” he told VICE World News. “I’m close with all my East Asian colleagues and one of them came to me with tears in her eyes when she saw the paper. She said someone threw a bottle at her during one of her routes and told her to go back to China.”
He confirmed this co-worker, Su Linying, also refused to deliver the sample edition. According to the CBC, Su was also suspended for three days without pay.
Sepulveda published a statement on Facebook explaining he wouldn’t “deliver these pieces of hate mail that would have a negative and divisive effect on whoever should read it.” He said that he also refused to deliver last summer’s Epoch edition, but didn’t get suspended that time.
“We are a media started by Asian immigrants. There is no way we would publish content that is anti-Asian,” wrote Cindy Gu, Epoch’s Canadian publisher, in a response to the CBC story published on its website. “But you only seem to interview those who speak negatively of us, employing labels, rather than pointing out specific factual errors.”
Gu is adamant that Epoch is a mailable product that focuses on independent and objective journalism.
“Canada Post is obligated to deliver any mail that is properly prepared and paid for, unless it is considered non-mailable matter,” a Canada Post spokesperson told VICE World News via email. “Any views we may have about the content do not change our obligation to deliver.”
The Epoch Times is best known for its open slant against the Chinese Communist Party. Founded in 2000 by dissidents escaping China, it has evolved into a platform that staunchly supports former U.S. President Donald Trump. According to the New York Times, the paper poured more money into pro-Trump Facebook ads than any other entity outside of the Trump campaign itself before getting banned in 2019 for disguising its ad purchases.
Last April, the Ministry of Public Services and Procurement, which overlooks Canada Post, rejected a complaint from workers in Toronto who didn’t want to deliver the paper, alleging it amounted to anti-Chinese hate speech during the initial months of the pandemic.
The ministry decided the paper didn’t include any “hate speech.” It did not reply to multiple interview requests from VICE World News.
“We have to rethink what counts as hate speech in Canada both online and offline,” Matthew Green, Member of Parliament for Hamilton-Centre and Public Services and Procurement critic for the New Democratic Party, told VICE World News. “Unfortunately we often leave it up to people who aren’t competent enough to define what hate is, and can’t always recognize it when they see it.”
Green said his office continues to be “inundated with complaints” about the paper. “We need a system where people who are offended by certain mail should be able to opt out,” he said. “And more so in this case because the Epoch Times clearly also carries a lot of misinformation, whether it’s COVID or about China.”
Last summer’s free eight-page edition called COVID-19 the “C.C.P. virus,” echoing Trump’s favourite “China virus” line. It also pushed the conspiracy theory that countries most affected by COVID-19 have been most infiltrated by Beijing, and theorized the initial outbreak in Washington state last spring could be traced back to Seattle opening its doors to Chinese communists over 40 years ago.
Epoch editors addressed public backlash to the issue in a statement that doubled down on how their “reporting on the coronavirus has been a vital service to our readers.” They stressed how the paper differentiates “the C.C.P. from the Chinese people” and thus was “truly standing up for the Chinese people, or Asian people generally.” The Epoch Times did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
A number of investigations in the past two years, from NBC to the New York Times, has revealed how Epoch (published in 36 countries and 22 languages) acts as a global purveyor of far-right conspiracy theories.
While numerous governments are struggling against the spread of online misinformation and disinformation, the Epoch Times is pursuing a “ground game” by handing out free copies, according to Ahmed al-Rawi, who runs The Disinformation Project at Simon Fraser University. This tactic conveniently bypasses any efforts by governments and tech companies to stop the spread of fake news or disinformation, he said.
“But the Canadian government is doing nothing basically when it comes to the limiting of misinformation or propaganda,” said al-Rawi. “What they should do is at least identify, educate, and talk about disinformation and point out the dangers of consuming it.”
Al-Rawi did an analysis of the Epoch’s Canadian Facebook page at the request of VICE World News and found the most recurring terms are “China” and “Chinese.”
“They seem to be very active and determined to spread propaganda,” he said. “Their most popular social media posts are not very political, like a video on dogs, or a heartwarming sight of bikers supporting someone, or dolphins, and so on. It's an interesting way of attracting users before sending them more political messages.”
The paper’s parent organization, Epoch Media Group, also operates New Tang Dynasty (NTD), a YouTube channel with over a million subscribers that pumps out a mountain of pro-Trump content, including videos about how the 2020 election was “illegitimate.”
The Epoch media empire is founded by followers of Li Hongzhi, a Chinese spiritual leader who started the religious movement Falun Gong (or Falun Dafa), in northeast China in the early 1990s. The movement’s beliefs and practices range from meditation to levitation. But former practitioners have also reported anti-gay and anti-modern medicine teachings. Li also reportedly said he has been sent from a higher level to help mankind face evil and that he can walk through walls and make himself invisible.
Falun Gong gained a huge following in China but was eventually banned after thousands of practitioners staged protests after alleged harassment by the state. Li now lives in a 427-acre compound in upstate New York, where he and his followers manage the media empire.
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Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct an Epoch Times link, and remove a reference to Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, which was from a different article. A previous version of this story said an Epoch Times story said Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg directly donated to the Democrats, this has been amended to accurately reflect the outlet said his donations benefited the Democrats. Two quotes from Ahmed al-Rawi have been clarified for accuracy.