Two Australian journalists have been pulled out of China by their media organisations, after police demanded interviews.
Bill Birtles (pictured), the ABC’s correspondent based in Beijing, and Mike Smith, the Australian Financial Review’s correspondent based in Shanghai, boarded a flight to Sydney last night after the pair were questioned separately by China’s Ministry of State security.
ABC reports Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade issued warnings to the two journalists last week, telling them they should leave China. Birtles was due to leave on Thursday.
But seven police officers arrived at Birtles’ apartment at midnight last Wednesday as he was holding farewell drinks with friends and colleagues. They told him he was banned from leaving the country, and that he would be questioned over a “national security case”. He spent four days sheltering in Australia’s Embassy in Beijing, while Smith took refuge in Australia’s Shanghai consulate as diplomats negotiated with Chinese officials to allow them to safely leave the country.
Birtles was told by embassy officials after the interview that his travel ban had been rescinded. He is not suspected of anything by Chinese authorities. The AFR made similar arrangements for Smith who was subjected to questioning on Monday evening.
Birtles has been based in Beijing since 2015, covering some of the biggest stories of recent years, including the rise of Xi Jinping, the US-China trade war, the Hong Kong protests and upheaval in the Australia-China relationship.
The drama came only days after China’s Government publicly confirmed the arrest of an Australian journalist working for China’s state media, Cheng Lei.
Director, News, Gaven Morris: said, “This bureau is a vital part of the ABC’s international newsgathering effort and we aim to get back there as soon as possible. The story of China, its relationship with Australia and its role in our region and in the world is one of great importance for all Australians and we want to continue having our people on the ground to cover it.”
Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance federal president Marcus Strom said: “The treatment of these Australian journalists, including a midnight police raid on the home of one journalist, is 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 in almost 50 years.
“The threats made by Chinese authorities, their interrogations, and the ban on leaving the country, forced the two journalists to seek refuge in diplomatic compounds until an agreement could be reached that allowed the pair to urgently return to Australia. The treatment of Cheng, an Australian citizen working for the Chinese state broadcaster, is particularly worrying as she has been detained in secret and little detail of why she was arrested has emerged.”
The evacuation means for the first time since the mid-1970s there are no accredited Australian media journalists in China.