Australia: Journalists Bill Birtles and Michael Smith forced to flee China

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Two Australian foreign correspondents in China have been urgently flown home after a tense diplomatic standoff, which Australia’s foreign minister called a “very disappointing series of events”.

The ABC’s Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith both left China on Monday night after reportedly being questioned by China’s ministry of state security.

“It’s very disappointing to have to leave under those circumstances,” Birtles said after returning to Sydney. “It’s a relief to be back in a country with genuine rule of law. But this was a whirlwind and it’s not a particularly good experience.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Birtles told the ABC the episode seemed to be “one of harassment of the remaining Australian journalists” and not a “genuine effort to try and get anything useful” in the case against Cheng Lei.

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, who was detained in China last month.

Birtles said he knew Cheng, although not very well, and that Smith had only met her once.

“Because, in the end, we had quite a wide-ranging discussion with police, touching on things like Australia – China relations, ‘did you report on the Hong Kong security law?’, ‘What sort of channels of information did you go to?’

It seemed to me, the two of us, Mike Smith and myself, were odd people to interview or interrogate if it was really just about that [Cheng] case.”

Australian diplomats in Beijing first cautioned Birtles that he should leave China early last week. That warning was repeated two days later, prompting the ABC to organise a flight out on Thursday.

But, according to the ABC, before he could leave, police officers arrived at Birtles’ apartment at midnight on Wednesday, as he was hosting farewell drinks. He was reportedly told he had been banned from leaving the country and would be interviewed over “a national security case”.

Birtles said he had initially been cynical of government advice to leave China, fearing departure would be seen by Beijing as a political move and would thus make it difficult for Australian media to return.

“But by midnight on Wednesday, the knock at the door came and there were six state security police and a translator, and so, clearly at the time I thought: well the Department of Foreign Affairs’ advice wasn’t bad, they had a hunch something was going on. That is when this … climatic game of chess commenced.”

Birtles then arranged to be picked up by officials from the Australian embassy and spent the next four days hiding in the embassy in Beijing, where he was contacted by Chinese officials demanding an interview.

“I felt like I suddenly, unintentionally, had become a pawn in some sort of diplomatic tussle,” Birtles told the ABC.

After initially refusing to speak to police, he was eventually interviewed by Chinese authorities on Sunday, accompanied by Australia’s ambassador to China, Graham Fletcher. The interview went ahead after officials agreed he could leave the country if he spoke to them.

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“Unprecedented things are increasingly happening there and this was part of the reason why there was so much concern,” Birtles said.

“The idea that a journalist would be detained is unprecedented, a foreign journalist in modern China, and yet there is a feeling now that you can’t rule out these things happening.”

ABC news director Gaven Morris said the ABC was in touch with their local staff in Beijing, but they didn’t have any information suggesting the staff were under threat.

“China, understanding China and the relationship between our two countries is probably the biggest story of our time, and having our people on the ground working with our local team to tell that story, is absolutely critical to the ABC.”

Michael Smith was visited by Chinese police about the same time, and he took shelter in the Australian consulate in Shanghai.

The journalist said it was a relief to be home. “It’s great to be back home safely after a difficult five days,” he said.

“The late-night visit by police at my home was intimidating and unnecessary and highlights the pressure all foreign journalists are under in China right now.”

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In a joint statement, the AFR’s editor-in-chief, Michael Stutchbury, and editor, Paul Bailey, called the matter “regrettable and disturbing”.

Bailey said on Tuesday afternoon they had received strong warnings from early last week to consider leaving Shanghai, but Smith hadn’t been preparing to leave when officers arrived at his house.

Smith was “quite shaken by the whole event” and glad to be back in Australia, Bailey said, but the AFR hoped to return as soon as it was safe.

“We need to be assured that we can operate there in the future and not have our correspondents targeted by police, or hauled in or stopped from leaving the country and moving around the country without being hassled.”

The extraordinary standoff comes amid a period of high tension between Australia and China. Before Cheng’s detention, the two countries had been embroiled in a tit-for-tat spat over a number of issues, including Australia’s push for a global investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 virus.

Speaking to 2GB radio, foreign minister Marise Payne said it was “fair to say that following the detention of [Cheng] we became concerned about uncertainties that might pose for other journalists”, and Australian authorities felt it was best the journalists stay in the embassy and consulate while negotiations were underway to allow them to leave the country.

“This is a very disappointing series of events, and I’m also very disappointed that we have major media organisations disrupted in their ability to report on China.”

The government’s advice to Australians remained they were at risk of arbitrary detention in mainland China, Payne said, and those in Hong Kong “should be paying very close attention” to government advice.

Payne declined to comment on Cheng’s case, but indicated there was still no information about why she had been arrested, and there had been no second consular visit since a video call shortly after her detention.

Australia’s shadow minister for foreign affairs, Penny Wong, said the situation was “deeply regrettable” and a “highly disturbing set of events”.

“Journalists everywhere should be able to do their work safely without the risk of intimidation or arbitrary detention.”

South Australian senator Rex Patrick said it appeared “quite inappropriate” for the Australian presence of Chinese state media outlet Xinhua News Agency to be “tolerated”, if Australian journalists couldn’t report safely from China.

However, Payne said later that unless individuals were breaching laws in Australia, stripping media accreditation “would not be an approach we would take”.

Experts fear that a number of recent arrests of foreigners by Chinese authorities are examples of “hostage diplomacy”. Authorities have still not disclosed the reason for Cheng’s arrest.

Peter Greste, spokesman for the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, said the treatment of Birtles and Smith appeared to be harassment to make a political point.

“Journalists should never be used as political pawns and hostages,” said Greste, who was detained in Egypt as a journalist for Al Jazeera between 2013 and 2015.

“Without Australian journalists operating freely in China, the Australian public has no independent eyes or ears reporting events inside our most important trading partner. That is bad for both Australia and China.”

Marcus Strom, president of Australia’s media union, the MEAA, said the midnight visits to the two correspondents were “appalling”. “China’s continued intimidation and harassment of foreign journalists, including Australians, represents a dramatic low point for the foreign media’s relations with China,” he said.

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