Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalist Bill Birtles is seen in Sydney, Australia, on September 8, 2020. Birtles and journalist Mike Smith recently fled China. (Australian Broadcasting Corporation via AP)

Australian journalists flee China; government restricts visas for foreign reporters

Taipei, September 8, 2020 – Chinese authorities should end their intimidation of international journalists and let all media operate freely and without fear of reprisal, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Yesterday, Bill Birtles, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Beijing correspondent, and Mike Smith, Shanghai correspondent for the Australian Financial Review, left China for Australia after a travel ban imposed by the Chinese Ministry of State Security, which had barred both journalists from leaving the country, was lifted, according to reports by their employers.

Separately, last week, Chinese authorities imposed new restrictions targeting journalists at U.S. news organizations in China, including CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg, according to news reports. At least five journalists from those outlets were handed a letter allowing them to report in the country for two months instead of a press card that is normally valid for one year, in a decision described by the Chinese Foreign Ministry as retaliation against measures by the U.S. government to restrict the visas of Chinese journalists in the United States, according to those reports.

“China’s move to bar two Australian journalists from leaving the country, coupled with a further crackdown on press cards granted to foreign reporters, marks a new low for the steadily intensifying mistreatment of foreign correspondents,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator, in Washington, D.C. “Authorities needs to step back and let journalists do their jobs and put a halt to measures that are decimating international coverage of China.”

According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Beijing police arrived at Birtles’ apartment unannounced at midnight on September 2, and told him he was banned from leaving the country and would be questioned in a “national security case.” On September 6, authorities questioned Birtles and Smith about Cheng Lei, an anchor for state-run broadcaster CGTN and an Australian citizen, according to that report.

Cheng, originally from China, was detained by authorities last month, as CPJ documented.

Following the questioning, Chinese and Australian authorities reached an agreement to allow the journalists, who had been staying at Australian diplomatic facilities for protection, to leave the country, according to their employers. This morning, Birtles and Smith landed safely in Sydney, according to a statement from Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China issued a statement condemning the government’s harassment and intimidation of the two journalists, and another statement expressing alarm over the visa restrictions imposed last week.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian today said Cheng is under investigation for “criminal activity endangering China’s national security,” according to news reports.

The Ministry of State Security did not respond to CPJ’s messages sent through its website requesting comment.

Since March, the United States and China have engaged in a tit-for-tat series of expulsions and visa restrictions affecting reporters at state-run Chinese outlets in the United States and privately owned U.S. outlets operating in China, as CPJ has documented.