Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media during a news conference in Sydney, Australia, July 27, 2020. Picture. AAP IMAGE/JOEL CARRETT/REUTERS
Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media during a news conference in Sydney, Australia, July 27, 2020. Picture. AAP IMAGE/JOEL CARRETT/REUTERS

Canberra/Beijing — Two Australian journalists based in China have fled the country as diplomatic relations between the trading partners worsen.

Bill Birtles, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Beijing correspondent, and Mike Smith, the Australian Financial Review’s Shanghai correspondent, left the country after Chinese police demanded interviews with them, according to Smith. The men were initially banned from leaving and spent five days under consular protection until Australian diplomats could negotiate their departure.

“It’s clearly political,” Smith said on Tuesday from Sydney. “It’s quite unprecedented to put an exit ban on foreign journalists in China.”

“Australia-China relations have really hit rock-bottom, so we’re unsure whether they were trying to send a message to Australia, to try and intimidate Australia more,” he said.

Their departure comes a week after Australia revealed that Cheng Lei, a Chinese-born Australian citizen who worked as an anchor at a Chinese government-run English-language news channel, had been detained by authorities.

Australia’s relationship with its largest trading partner has worsened since Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government in April called for an independent inquiry into the source of the coronavirus pandemic. China has subsequently imposed tariffs on barley, blocked some beef exports, begun anti-dumping probes into the wine industry and warned its citizens to avoid holidaying or studying in Australia.

Smith and Birtles were the last accredited reporters for Australian media based in mainland China. There are still other Australian citizens working as journalists in China for US, British and other media companies.

Smith said he was first cautioned last week by Australian diplomats that he should leave the country. Birtles also received the same advice, the ABC reported.

Ministry of state security officers came to their homes after midnight on Wednesday and informed them that they were “persons of interest” in an investigation and couldn’t leave China, according to Smith. The experience of being surrounded in his home and filmed by police as they read out a statement was “a bit of a shock and quite intimidating”, he said.

They were eventually allowed to leave the country after agreeing to an interview with police while under consular protection. Smith said officials asked about Cheng Lei, among other questions, and described the hour-long interview as “pretty benign” and “polite”.

Foreign minister Marise Payne confirmed the government had provided consular assistance and “engaged with Chinese government authorities to ensure their wellbeing and return”.

“The Australian government continues to provide consular support to Australian citizens detained in China, including Ms Cheng Lei,” Payne said in a statement.

China’s ministry of foreign affairs didn’t respond to a request for comment on the two journalists. The union representing journalists in Australia issued a statement condemning the treatment of the two men and the “secret detention” of Lei.

The Australian journalists are not alone in being caught up in diplomatic tensions. Beijing authorities have delayed renewing the press credentials of some journalists working for US media outlets, in response to the Trump administration’s limiting visa terms for Chinese reporters in the US.

The ABC, Australia’s publicly funded national broadcaster, opened its Beijing bureau in 1973 after the countries normalised relations. Other Australians have had their requests for journalist visas refused in recent months.

Bloomberg

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