China’s expulsion of a US reporter working for the pan-Arab news network al-Jazeera has drawn criticism from other journalists and the US, and in turn a particularly tight-lipped reaction from Beijing.
Melissa Chan is the first accredited foreign journalist to be expelled from China since 1998.
The move, made public on Tuesday by al-Jazeera, is seen as Beijing’s latest attempt to punish international media whose reports the government dislikes and sees as besmirching its global image.
The expulsion “seems to be taking China’s anti-media policies to a new level,” Bob Dietz, the Asia coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement.
Chan was al-Jazeera’s only English-language reporter in China, and the Qatar-based network said in a statement that it had to close its English-language service’s bureau because her press credentials and visa were not extended.
Chan is a US citizen who worked for the network in China for five years. She had reported extensively on sensitive topics such as illegal seizures of farmland and the imprisonment of petitioners from the countryside in unofficial “black jails.”
Fourteen of the 18 questions asked at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ regular briefing on Tuesday concerned Chan, but ministry spokesman Hong Lei (洪磊) would not discuss her status, saying only that journalists must follow China’s laws and regulations.
All the questions about Chan were missing from the official transcript later posted on the ministry’s Web site, in keeping with Beijing’s occasional practice of ignoring sensitive questions.
An official at the ministry’s news office said she was unaware of gaps in the transcript and asked for a faxed list of questions about it.
Though widely reported in international media and condemned by government’s and professional groups, Chan’s expulsion has not been mentioned in Chinese state media.
The US Department of State said it had followed Chan’s case closely and was disappointed by the Chinese government’s decision not to renew her accreditation.
“To our knowledge, she operated and reported in accordance with Chinese law, including regulations that permit foreign journalists to operate freely in China,” spokesman Mark Toner told a news briefing in Washington.
Al-Jazeera said no permission to replace Chan was given and its requests for additional visas for correspondents had gone unanswered. The expulsion does not impact al-Jazeera’s Arabic-language service, which maintains several accredited journalists in its Beijing bureau.
Foreign reporters in China often experience harassment, surveillance and visa problems when government officials are angry at their reports.
Al-Jazeera did not say if any reason was given for expelling Chan.
Al-Jazeera reported extensively on last year’s Arab Spring anti-government uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere — events that spooked the Chinese Communist Party leadership. After calls were posted online for similar protests in China, Beijing responded with a harsh crackdown on media, lawyers, writers and government critics.
Al-Jazeera’s English director of news Salah Negm defended Chan and the network’s coverage.
“We constantly cover the voice of the voiceless and sometimes that calls for tough news coverage from anywhere in world. We hope China appreciates the integrity of our news coverage and our journalism,” Negm said a statement.