Bill Birtles, the ABC's Beijing-based correspondent, and Mike Smith, AFR's Shanghai-based correspondent, both boarded the flight to Sydney on September 7 after they were heavily questioned by China's Ministry of State security and subsequently sought refuge in diplomatic compounds. This now leaves no accredited Australian journalists remaining in China.
MEAA described the treatment of the journalists as “appalling”, citing a midnight police raid on the home of one journalist. After threats made by Chinese authorities, interrogations and a ban on leaving the country, the two men sought refuge in diplomatic compounds until an agreement could be reached to allow the pair to urgently return to Australia, according to MEAA. Australian Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, confirmed that consular officials had provided support to the journalists. "Our embassy in Beijing and consulate-general in Shanghai engaged with Chinese government authorities to ensure their wellbeing and return to Australia," she said in a statement on Tuesday.
According to reports in the AFR, both journalists were told they were ‘persons of interest’ in an investigation into the Chinese-born Australian news anchor Cheng Lei, who was detained in China last month and whose status remain a critical cause for concern. The female broadcaster is being detained in secret and no details have been provided as to the reasons for her arrest.
China’s continued intimidation and harassment of foreign journalists, including Australians, has escalated over the past eight months, as an increasing number of foreign journalists faced expulsion or had visa credentials severely shortened. The IFJ understands that in excess of 17 journalists have been expelled or had their visas not renewed in the first half of 2020.
In February, 2020, China ordered three reporters from The Wall Street Journal to leave the country over what Beijing deemed a racist headline, including Australian journalist Phillip Wen. Wen was reported to be the first Australian reporter to be expelled directly during the 70 years of the People’s Republic. In March, 14 US journalists were also expelled as tensions increased between the US and China over foreign correspondents in China and the US. Then in May, 2020, esteemed Australian journalist covering China, New York Times’ correspondent Chris Buckley was also expelled from the country.
A “serious deterioration” in reporting conditions was documented by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China in its annual survey of working conditions released in March. In its report, the club said the Chinese government was using “visas as weapons” against foreign journalists on an unprecedented scale amid a marked deterioration in working conditions for international media.
More than 80% of correspondents surveyed for the report said they had experienced “interference, harassment or violence” while reporting. The three most sensitive coverage areas have been the Hong Kong protests, the situation in Xinjiang and any criticism of President Xi Jinping.
MEAA in its statement described the latest developments as “a dramatic low point for the foreign media’s relations with China in almost 50 years”.
MEAA Media federal president Marcus Strom said: “It is clear that China, and by extension Hong Kong through the recent National Security Law, is unsafe for foreign journalists. These outrageous attacks on press freedom place any foreign correspondents reporting from China at risk. China is isolating itself from the world’s gaze and demonstrating it will not brook any scrutiny of its activities. It threatens and intimidates journalists using ‘national security' as a catch-all excuse. This is an extremely disappointing development. It has come swiftly, it is extremely aggressive and it will do great harm to China’s reputation around the world.”
The IFJ acknowledged the work of the media companies and the Australian government in negotiating the safe evacuation of the two Australian journalists, but remains gravely concerned for the well-being of stringers and locally engaged staff for foreign media, including Australia.
The IFJ said: “The work of foreign correspondents in a country like China is all the more vital given that journalist visas are only obtainable for China through sponsorship of a party or state agency or through State-sanctioned and controlled visits by China’s authorities. Correspondents who work in the China space do so with great journalistic skill and critical knowledge and understanding of the challenges of reporting; and yet they still break critical stories of importance to the global community.
“What we are witnessing is the greatest deterioration in China’s media controls in decades and that will leave a vacuum of credible reporting at a critical time. It presents a gravely concerning picture of authorities who desire total control of the information going out of China to the world.”