China shuts out Al-Jazeera English in Beijing

New York, May 7, 2012–China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs should immediately grant accreditation to Al-Jazeera English reporters to work in China, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The channel said China has refused its long-time correspondent Melissa Chan and other colleagues journalist visas, forcing it to close its Beijing bureau. 

Al-Jazeera English had requested visas for various correspondents “for quite some time,” but none were issued, the channel said in a statement released early Tuesday in Beijing. Accreditation is handled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ International Press Center.  “With China not renewing [our] existing correspondent’s accreditations, or allowing a replacement correspondent,” Al-Jazeera English said it has no choice “other than to close its Beijing bureau.”

“We urge China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to immediately grant Al-Jazeera English correspondents accreditation to report the news in China,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia program coordinator. “The refusal to renew Melissa Chan’s credentials marks a real deterioration in China’s media environment, and sends a message that international coverage is unwanted.”

Al-Jazeera English did not elaborate on the reasons for China’s decision. Like all foreign news outlets, the channel covered topics censored domestically by the Chinese Communist Party, including ethnic unrest and secret jails. Anonymous hackers have subjected Chan to malware attacks in the past, another common experience for foreign reporters, according to CPJ research. But there was no clear reason for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to ban the channel’s correspondents. Chan, the Al-Jazeera English Beijing-based correspondent since 2007, told CPJ by email she was not authorized to comment.

“Surveillance and harassment are the norm for reporters on the China beat, and authorities will often delay visa approval or threaten to revoke it as part of an overall strategy of intimidation. But effectively shuttering an international news outlet is a disturbing development,” Dietz said.

Some news outlets do not publicize visa pressure in hopes of maintaining future access, but CPJ has documented visa problems in the past. Dietz was himself denied entry into China before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and his applications for a journalist visa from New York and Hong Kong were ignored. Some accredited reporters and unaccredited citizen journalists reporting on Tibet were denied entry or deported during the Olympics.

China responded to concerns about its pre-Olympics media environment with rules allowing foreign journalists to work anywhere and interview anyone who consents. But more recently, at times of heightened internal tension, Beijing has invoked that rule to punish journalists who it said didn’t seek prior approval:

  • Foreign journalists were detained in 2011 for not seeking permission to report in a Beijing shopping street pegged as the site of Jasmine Revolution demonstrations–though the protest never materialized, and permission appeared impossible to obtain.
  • Beijing’s Public Security Bureau summoned at least a dozen reporters on Friday for working without permission in the part of Chaoyang Hospital where blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng was being treated, according to an email circulated to members by the Foreign Correspondents Club of China.
  • At least two reporters had their press credentials seized, “hopefully just temporarily,” for unauthorized reporting at the same site on Thursday, according to the Club.

Melissa Chan is listed as the 2011-2012 Secretary of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China on the organization’s website.