Australian media firms pull journalists from China over security worries: ABC

A man walks past the Australian Embassy in Beijing on Sept 2, 2020.
A man walks past the Australian Embassy in Beijing on Sept 2, 2020.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY (REUTERS, AFP, BLOOMBERG) - Two Australian media firms have rushed two of their China-based reporters from the country after police there demanded interviews with both journalists, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported on Tuesday (Sept 8).

An ABC correspondent based in Beijing and the Australian Financial Review's (AFR) correspondent based in Shanghai boarded a flight to Sydney on Monday night after they were questioned separately by China's Ministry of State security, the report said.

The journalists took shelter in Australia's embassy in Beijing and consulate in Shanghai as diplomats negotiated with Chinese officials to allow them to safely leave the country, the report said.

“The Australian government has provided consular support to two Australian journalists in China to assist their return,” Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a statement on Tuesday.

“Our embassy in Beijing and consulate-general in Shanghai engaged with Chinese government authorities to ensure their wellbeing and return.”

The two journalists landed in Sydney on Tuesday morning after what  the ABC called an “extraordinary diplomatic standoff”. 

Birtles told reporters at Sydney airport it was very disappointing to have to leave China under “those circumstances.” “But this was a whirlwind and it was not a particularly good experience,” he said. 

The ABC said it brought Birtles back to Australia following advice from the Australian government.

The incident comes amid worsening diplomatic relations between the two governments and followed the detention last month of Cheng Lei, an Australian working as a business news anchor for CGTN.  Chinese authorities have given no reason for Cheng’s detention.

The ABC said Australia’s foreign ministry warned Birtles last week that he should leave China but on the day before his scheduled departure seven police officers visited his home at midnight and said he was banned from leaving.  

The police said they wanted to question Birtles over a “national security case”, prompting him to take refuge at the embassy.  Birtles was questioned by Chinese police later in the week in the presence of Australian diplomats and the travel ban was lifted, ABC said. 

The AFR said Smith was also visited by police the same night in Shanghai and that both men were questioned in relation to the case against Cheng.

“This incident targeting two journalists, who were going about their normal reporting duties, is both regrettable and disturbing and is not in the interests of a co-operative relationship between Australia and China,” the Financial Review’s editor-in-chief Michael Stutchbury and editor Paul Bailey said in a statement.  

Australia earlier this year warned its citizens they faced the risk of arbitrary detention in China. Ties began to sour between Australia and China – its biggest trading partner – more than two years ago when Australian authorities began to move against what was seen as China’s growing political interference and influence-peddling in the country.  

Beijing was particularly infuriated by Australia’s leading role in international calls earlier this year for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, which began in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

Since then, China has taken steps to curb key Australian imports and encouraged Chinese students and tourists to avoid the country.  

Cheng is the second high-profile Australian citizen to be detained in Beijing after writer Yang Hengjun was arrested in January 2019 on suspicion of espionage.