The Chinese government refused to explain Tuesday why it had expelled the the English language correspondent of Al Jazeera, but hinted at charges she had broken Chinese laws and behaved unethically.
“Foreign journalists should abide by Chinese laws and regulations and abide by professional ethics,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said, in answer to a question as to why the correspondent, Melissa Chan, had been expelled from the country.
“I think the relevant journalists are very clear about what kind of regulations they have broken,” Mr. Hong added.
Ms. Chan’s expulsion marks the first time an accredited foreign correspondent living in China has been ejected since 1998. Her departure prompted the Qatar-based Al Jazeera English channel to close its Beijing bureau, a spokesman for the network said on Tuesday.
Though Hong would not explain what motivated the Chinese Foreign Ministry to refuse to renew Chan’s press credentials, without which she was not allowed to live here, Chinese officials are known to have expressed their anger at a documentary that Al Jazeera aired last November on the alleged use of slave labor by prisoners in Chinese jails.
Hong told Scandinavian correspondents privately at a recent dinner that the documentary had been “fabricated” according to two of the reporters present.
Ms. Chan played no role in making the program, which was produced by Al Jazeera’s London bureau, according to a spokesman for the channel.
In his comments to reporters Tuesday, Hong suggested that the Chinese government reserved the right to deny journalist visas to reporters whose coverage it deemed unfair. “We welcome foreign journalists to report objectively in China,” he said. “We have dealt with foreign journalists in accordance with rules and regulations as well as the actual performance of the journalists.”
During talks between Chinese and Al Jazeera officials earlier this year, the Chinese also accused Chan of unspecified violations of Chinese law. A spokesman for the channel said that Al Jazeera had repeatedly asked for clarification of the nature of these violations but had not been given one.
Chan had made a reputation for herself with a number of investigative reports on issues about which the Chinese authorities are sensitive, such as the violent confiscation of farmers’ land for development projects and the incarceration of citizens protesting such behavior in illegal “black jails” in Beijing.
The Chinese government’s refusal to renew Chan’s accreditation beyond the end of March or to accredit a replacement correspondent left Al Jazeera with “no choice other than to close its Beijing bureau,” the channel said in its statement.
Protesting the expulsion, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said Chan’s ejection fit “a recent pattern of using journalist visas in an attempt to censor and intimidate foreign correspondents in China.”
In a survey of its members last year, the FCCC said, it had found 27 cases over the previous two years in which the Chinese authorities had made foreign reporters wait more than four months for visa approval, and 28 cases in which permanent postings or reporting visits had been canceled because requests for the required visas had been rejected or ignored by the Chinese authorities.
In six cases, reporters said they had been told by Foreign Ministry officials that their bureaus’ visa applications had been rejected or put on hold due to the content of the bureaus’ or the applicant’s previous coverage of Chinese affairs.
The FCCC said it “believes that foreign news organizations, not the Chinese government, have the right to choose who works for them in China, in line with international standards.”
“Just as China news services cover the world freely, we would expect that same freedom in China for any Al Jazeera journalist,” the channel’s director of news, Salah Negm, said in a statement about Chan’s expulsion. He said Al Jazeera would “continue to work with the Chinese authorities in order to reopen our Beijing bureau.”
Chan was refused a standard one-year foreign correspondent’s accreditation at the end of last year. Instead she was given a two-month credential that was extended until the end of March.
Editor’s note: Peter Ford is the Vice President of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, whose statement is quoted in the above article.