The last two journalists working for Australian media in China left the country after police demanded interviews with them and temporarily blocked their departures, marking a further twist in China’s increasingly troubled relationship with the foreign media.
The absence of Australian media from China for the first time in four decades comes during a low point in the two countries’ relations, and the events that led to the journalists’ departures were seen as evidence of an increasing risk to foreign journalists working in China.
Australian Broadcasting Corp’s (ABC) Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith landed in Sydney yesterday after flying from Shanghai on Monday night, both news outlets reported.
Photo: AP / Australian Broadcasting Corp
Both journalists had sheltered in Australian diplomatic compounds in the past few days.
They left after Australia revealed last week that Australian citizen Cheng Lei (成蕾), a business news anchor for CGTN, China’s English-language state media channel, had been detained.
Both journalists were told they were “persons of interest” in an investigation into Cheng, the Australian Financial Review reported.
Photo: AP / Australian Broadcasting Corp
Seven uniformed police visited each journalist’s home, in Beijing and Shanghai, at 12:30am on Thursday, the newspaper said.
Birtles said he knew Cheng, “but not especially well,” and Smith had met her once.
“I believe the episode was more one of harassment of the remaining Australian journalists rather than a genuine effort to try and get anything useful for that case,” he said from his Sydney quarantine hotel.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian (趙立堅) told reporters that Cheng was “suspected of carrying out criminal activities endangering China’s national security.”
“Compulsory measures have been imposed on Cheng and she has recently been investigated by relevant authorities,” Zhao said at a daily briefing yesterday.
As part of that investigation and in accordance with the law, China’s “relevant authority” demanded to question Birtles and Smith “which is normal law enforcement,” Zhao said. “As long as foreign journalists conduct news reporting in accordance with laws, they should have nothing to worry about.”
Australian embassy officials in Beijing told Birtles last week that he should leave China, ABC reported.
Birtles was due to depart Beijing on Thursday and was holding a farewell party on Wednesday night when police came to his apartment and told him he was banned from leaving the country, ABC said.
He was told he would be contacted on Thursday to organize a time to be questioned about a “national security case,” it said.
Birtles went to the Australian embassy, where he spent four days while Australian and Chinese officials negotiated.
Smith had similarly holed up at the Australian consulate in Shanghai.
They both agreed to give police a brief interview in return for being allowed to leave the country.
Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne said Cheng’s detention was part of the reason her government had advised the journalists to leave. She declined to detail all the reasons.
“It is disappointing that after many years, Australia will not have a media organization present in China for some period of time,” Payne said.
She said Australia would not retaliate by revoking the visas of Chinese journalists working in Australia.
“Australia operates according to law and in our national interests, and unless individuals are breaching laws in Australia, then that would not be an approach that we would take,” Payne said.
Australia’s travel warning of the risk of arbitrary detention in China “remains appropriate and unchanged,” she added.
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