Two Australian media immediately withdrew their correspondents from China after being questioned by the Chinese authorities. The journalists had been hiding in the Australian embassy in Beijing and the consulate in Shanghai for the last few days. With the help of the Australian government they were able to leave the country. It is not clear why they were targeted by the authorities.
Bill Birtles of the Australian public broadcaster ABC News and Mike Smith of the Australian Financial Review (AFR) were the last two journalists officially allowed to work in China for Australian media. Their rushed departure follows a warning that Birtles received last week from Australian diplomats, who advised him to leave the country.
Also a top man of ABC was warned that Birtles had to leave China. He decided to follow the advice and organised a farewell drink for friends and colleagues. The meeting was interrupted by seven Chinese agents, who told Birtles that he was not allowed to leave the country and that he would be interrogated because of “a matter of national security”.
Australian hostess arrested
ABC reports that Birtles has indeed been interrogated and states that no questions have been asked about his reporting on China. He himself says he is happy to be back in Australia. “This was a whirlwind, and certainly not a nice experience,” he says on his employer’s website. The broadcaster hopes to be able to send another correspondent to China as soon as possible.
The retrieval of the journalists follows the arrest of an Australian presenter, Cheng Lei, who worked for the Chinese state broadcaster CGTN. It is still unclear why she was arrested by the Chinese authorities last month.
The diplomatic relationship between Australia and China has been under pressure for some time now. This is partly due to a trade war between the countries, indirect accusations of cyber attacks and a strong rejection of the controversial security law in Hong Kong by Australia.