Two Australian correspondents in China have landed in Sydney on Tuesday after hastily leaving this country for fear of being arrested and after a diplomatic clash between Beijing and Canberra that even included a veto on their departure from China that lasted for several days. , as reported by their respective organizations. The departure of Bill Birtles, from the ABC television network, and Mike Smith, from the Australian Financial Review , leaves Australia without accredited media as the world’s second largest economic power, for the first time since the 1970s.
The evacuation marks a worrying milestone in the growing deterioration of relations between the two countries , and in the work climate of foreign journalists accredited in China: 17 US media correspondents have been expelled so far this year , and another five They have been denied the renewal of their official press card, as part of the respective reprisals between Beijing and Washington .
The saga originates from the arrest of an Australian journalist who worked for Chinese state television, Cheng Lei, for reasons that are so far unclear. Cheng has been held incommunicado since last month.
Both Smith, who is stationed in Shanghai, and Birtles, who lives in Beijing, received notices from the Australian Embassy in Beijing early last week advising them to leave the country. Alerts that also received the addresses of their respective media in Sydney, and that precipitated the purchase of flights. But before either of them could travel, at midnight on Wednesday – and, in the case of the ABC correspondent, while offering a farewell drinks to friends and colleagues – groups of Chinese police officers showed up at the respective offices. addresses of the two journalists.
Seven officers appeared at Birtles’ home. “They told him that he was prohibited from leaving the country and that he would be contacted the next day to arrange an appointment to question him about a ‘case of national security,” ABC has published. Both were told that they were considered “persons of interest” – not suspects – in the Cheng Lei case.
The television correspondent contacted his embassy in Beijing, with which he agreed that he would be picked up from his apartment. Birtles remained sheltered in the facilities of the diplomatic legation for five days, and Smith also remained under consular protection, while a true strip and loose of negotiations between the two governments developed. Finally, an agreement was reached: the two journalists could leave the country if they agreed to testify for an hour before officials of the Ministry of State Security, something they did on Sunday, each one separately and accompanied by representatives of their embassy. According to ABC, his correspondent was never asked about his work or conduct in China.
On Monday, after the travel ban was lifted, the two journalists took an outbound flight from Shanghai. “It is good to be home, but it is very disappointing to leave China under such abrupt circumstances. It’s been a big part of my life and last week it was surreal, ”Birtles tweeted after landing.
“We are delighted that Mike Smith, our Shanghai correspondent for the last two and a half years, and ABC’s Bill Birtles returned safely to Australia this morning,” said Michael Stutchbury, Director of the Australian Financial Review (AFR). and manager Paul Bailey in statements published by the outlet. “This incident against two reporters who were focused on their normal journalistic duties is both regrettable and alarming, and does not serve the interests of a cooperative relationship between Australia and China,” they added.
Australian Foreign Minister Marisa Payne has confirmed that the two correspondents received consular assistance to return to their country. “The Australian Government continues to provide consular support to Australian citizens detained in China, including Cheng Lei. We cannot provide more details for privacy reasons, “he said in a statement.
Birtles and Smith were the last remaining Australian media correspondents in China. A third, Will Glasgow, a journalist for The Australian , planned to fly to that country last Sunday but postponed his trip on the recommendation of his government.
The incident “is the latest sign of deterioration in political relations between Australia and China,” notes AFR. Both countries have experienced a tough confrontation this year due to the origin of the covid pandemic, and Canberra has raised the alert on trips to the Asian giant, pointing out that Australians living in China are at risk of aarbitrary detentions.