CCTV, China’s main broadcast network, was going to broadcast a match between Arsenal and Manchester City on Sunday. The telecast was scratched in the wake of comments by Arsenal’s Mesut Özil about the internment of Uighurs in China. Streaming services in China, PPTV Sports and Migu Sports, also pulled their coverage of the game.
Özil, a devout Muslim of Turkish heritage, put out a long message on social media Friday morning about the circumstances faced by the Muslim Uighur population in China. “Qurans are being burned,” he wrote. “Mosques are being closed … Muslim schools are being banned… Religious scholars are being killed one by one.”
The take-down had considerable reach. Özil has 21.1 million followers on Instagram and another 24.4 million on Twitter.
About a million Uighurs are interned in camps in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, according to human rights advocates. A protest was held Saturday in Istanbul.
In October, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey created a firestorm for the NBA when he tweeted — and subsequently deleted — support for anti-government protesters in Hong Kong. The uproar over the tweet did damage to the long-nurtured relationship between the league and China. International stars like LeBron James faced a no-win choice between publicly backing Morey’s pro-democracy sentiment or siding with China. South Park mercilessly mocked the whole situation in an episode that was one of the highest profile in the show’s two-plus-decade run. Co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone then added fuel to the fire with a non-apology “apology.”
Arsenal sought to distance itself from controversy. It said in a statement that “these are Mesut’s personal views,” insisting that Arsenal “is always apolitical as an organization.”