Al-Jazeera said Tuesday it has shut its English-language bureau in China after its correspondent became the first foreign journalist to be expelled from the country since 1998.
Beijing’s refusal to renew the visa of US citizen Melissa Chan sparked anger among press groups, which linked the decision to a documentary by the international news channel on forced prison labour in China.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) said it was “appalled” and called the move a “grave threat to foreign reporters’ ability to work in China”.
“This is the most extreme example of a recent pattern of using journalist visas in an attempt to censor and intimidate foreign correspondents in China,” said a statement from the FCCC, considered an illegal organisation in China.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong also condemned Chan’s expulsion.
“Objecting to bad news by punishing journalists and news organisations — thereby creating even more bad news — is a flawed and self-defeating response that should have no place in a strong and modern nation,” it said.
Chan is thought to be the first journalist to be expelled from China since 1998, when Juergen Kremb of the German magazine Der Spiegel was accused of possessing state secrets and ordered to leave the country.
No reason was given for the expulsion, but the FCCC said Chinese officials had expressed anger at the prison labour documentary aired by Al-Jazeera last November, in which Chan was not involved.
The government also “accused Ms. Chan of violating rules and regulations that they have not specified”, the FCCC said.
Chan had been Al-Jazeera’s Beijing correspondent since 2007. Like other foreign reporters, she had covered stories routinely censored by domestic media, including social unrest and secret jails.
Al-Jazeera said it had no choice but to close its English-language bureau, after China also failed to grant visas to other journalists it employed, but that it would continue to work with the government to reopen.
Osama Saeed, a spokesman for the news channel, said he was unsure about the timing of the bureau’s closure.
“It was a shared bureau with Al Jazeera Arabic… and that is unaffected by this,” he said, adding the news channel had not been given any specific reasons for Chan’s expulsion, “despite several requests.”
Salah Negm, director of news at Al-Jazeera English, said the channel remained committed to its coverage of China.
“Just as China news services cover the world freely, we would expect that same freedom in China for any Al-Jazeera journalist,” he said in a statement.
“We hope China appreciates the integrity of our news coverage and our journalism.”
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei was bombarded with questions about Chan during a regular briefing on Tuesday.
He would not comment directly on her case, but said foreign journalists “should abide by Chinese laws and regulations while reporting in China, and abide by professional ethics”.
The 649 accredited foreign journalists working in China have to apply to renew their press credentials at the end of every year.
Last week, around a dozen were summoned to the visa department for a warning after reporting from the car park of the hospital where the blind activist Chen Guangcheng is undergoing treatment.
They were told they had broken a rule stating that “a foreign journalist who intends to interview organisations or individuals in China needs to obtain their prior consent”, and warned their visas could be revoked if they did so again.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) urged the Chinese government to reconsider its decision on Chan.
“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 programme 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.”