The Chinese-born Australian has been an anchor and reporter for China Global Television Network, the English-language services of the Chinese state media, China Central Television (CCTV), for eight years. Previously, she also worked for CNBC Asia in China and Singapore.
Cheng’s niece, Louisa Wen, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) that she didn’t think her aunt “would have done anything to harm national security in any way intentionally”.
According to Wen, Cheng had been interrogated on multiple occasions and her condition was worsening after being kept in confinement for six months. It is the first time Cheng’s family has spoken openly about her detention conditions.
Australia’s foreign minister said the Australian Government had “raised its serious concerns about Ms Cheng’s detention regularly at senior levels, including about her welfare and conditions of detention”. Australian embassy officials had been given access to visit the journalist six times since her detention.
Cheng was born in Yueyang, Hunan Province, in 1975 and emigrated to Australia with her parents at the age of 10. She has two children, who returned to Australia in the early onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Both are currently being cared for by Cheng’s family in Melbourne.
The journalist’s arrest comes at a time of heightened tension between Australia and China and also amid a clamping down by Chinese authorities on international media working in Mainland China.
During the pandemic in 2020 and immediately preceding it, an increasing number of incidents concerning correspondents being raided or refused visas drew international criticism on the actions of Beijing and its clamping down and intimidation of outside reporting.
Haze Fan, a Chinese journalist in Beijing working for American outlet Bloomberg, was also detained in a national security investigation in December 2020.
The IFJ said the critical concern was for Cheng’s during her detention without charge and the potential for a prolonged investigation and its impacts on her.
Australian citizen Yang Hengjun has spent more than two years detained in Beijing without trial, accused of espionage. Authorities did not allow him to meet a lawyer until the 19th month of his detention.
The IFJ said: “Cheng Lei has been held without charge for six months and during that time authorities have failed to give any clear details of the allegations against her and justification for this confinement away from her family and loved ones. This defies all international standards in terms of respect for human rights. Charges against journalists under national security grounds are disturbing, as they undermine journalists’ safety and curtail media freedom. The IFJ condemns Cheng’s arrest and demands her immediate release.”