Australian media’s last reporters in China flee amid tensions

Two Australian journalists based in China have fled the country as diplomatic relations between the trading partners worsen.
Bill Birtles, the Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s Beijing correspondent, and Mike Smith, the Australian Financial Review’s Shanghai correspondent, left the country after Chinese police demanded interviews with them, according to Smith. The men were initially banned from leaving and spent five days under consular protection until Australian diplomats could negotiate their departure.
“It’s clearly political,” Smith said yesterday from Sydney. “It’s quite unprecedented to put an exit ban on foreign journalists in China.”
“Australia-China relations have really hit rock-bottom, so we’re unsure whether they were trying to send a message to Australia, to try and intimidate Australia more,” he said.
Their departure comes a week after Australia revealed that Cheng Lei, a Chinese-born Australian citizen who worked as an anchor at government-run English-language news channel CGTN had been detained by authorities.
Yesterday, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the government detained her on “national security grounds,” saying authorities had taken “compulsory measures” against her. An investigation is now under way, he added.
Smith and Birtles were the last accredited reporters for Australian media based in mainland China. There are still other Australian citizens working as journalists in China for American, British and other media companies.
Smith said he was first cautioned last week by Australian diplomats that he should leave the country. Birtles also receive the same advice, the ABC reported.
Ministry of State Security officers came to their homes after midnight on Wednesday and informed them that they were “persons of interest” in an investigation and couldn’t leave China, according to Smith. The experience of being surrounded in his home and filmed by police as they read out a statement was “a bit of a shock and quite intimidating,” he said.
They were eventually allowed to leave the country after agreeing to an interview with police while under consular protection. Smith said officials asked about Cheng Lei, among other questions, and described the hour-long interview as “pretty benign” and “polite.” MDT/Bloomberg

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