China to expel French journalist, reporter tells AFP

BEIJING (AFP) - China has refused to renew the press credentials of a French journalist, effectively expelling her, unless she recants one of her stories, the reporter told AFP on Friday, the first such case since 2012.

Ursula Gauthier, a Beijing-based correspondent for French news magazine L'Obs, must issue a public apology for an article she wrote last month or China's foreign ministry will not renew her press credentials, set to expire at the end of this month, officials told Gauthier on Christmas Day.

"They confirmed that if I did not make a public apology on all the points that had 'hurt the Chinese people'... my press card would not be renewed and I would have to leave on Dec 31," she told AFP.

Gauthier would be the first foreign correspondent in China to be expelled since the 2012 expulsion of Melissa Chan, correspondent for the English-language service of Al Jazeera.

While the domestic media in China is subject to strict control and many topics are taboo, the foreign media is free to publish on any topic. However, foreign journalists frequently complain of harassment by the authorities while conducting routine reporting.

Gauthier's article in L'Obs triggered condemnation from Beijing and a virulent campaign in the state-run Global Times and China Daily, as well as thousands of often violent and abusive comments from Chinese Internet users. Her photo was also published online.

Entitled "After the attacks (on Paris), Chinese solidarity is not without ulterior motives", her article spoke of China's anti-terrorism policies in the country's western region of Xinjiang, homeland of the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority - many of whom complain of discrimination and controls on their culture and religion.

Chinese authorities said they believed Gauthier's article offered justification for violence in the region that the government labels as "terrorism".

"The article criticised China's counter-terrorism efforts, and denigrated and slandered Chinese policies. It provoked the strong indignation of the Chinese public," Hua Chunying, a foreign ministry spokesman, said at a regular press briefing in early December.

The foreign ministry did not immediately respond to calls and faxes on Friday seeking comment.

Beijing considers condemnation of attacks in Xinjiang by foreign governments and the international press as weak, and has slammed Western countries for applying "double standards" on terrorism in the wake of the November attacks in Paris which left 130 dead and were claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group.

Gauthier was twice summoned to China's foreign ministry, which issues press credentials to foreign journalists, before Friday's phone call.

If her press card is not renewed, Gauthier cannot apply for a new visa, forcing her to leave China.

"If I had actually written what they accuse me of, I deserve to be put in prison, not expelled," Gauthier told AFP.

Her treatment is "a pretext to intimidate foreign correspondents in China, particularly on issues concerning minorities, especially in Tibet and Xinjiang", she added.

French officials, including France's ambassador to China, Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, have asked Chinese authorities to reverse their decision, but so far to no avail.

Gauthier sent a letter of explanation to the Global Times in response to its campaign against her, but it went unanswered.

L'Obs on Friday condemned the decision, with the magazine's director Matthieu Croissandeau telling AFP: "This is an unacceptable attack on freedom of information and creates a real obstacle for journalism in China."

The Foreign Correspondents Club of China has said it is "deeply concerned with the attempts of intimidation" in Gauthier's case.

Reporters Without Borders also denounced the "media lynching" and "campaign of defamation and intimidation" against the French journalist.

Ursula Gauthier spent 10 years in China from 1979 to 1989 and studied at Peking University before being accredited to L'Obs in 2009.