Al Jazeera correspondent expelled from China

Al Jazeera English’s China correspondent, Melissa Chan, has been expelled from the People’s Republic after five years in the country.

The TV station’s English arm today announced it has closed its Beijing bureau after the Chinese authorities refused to renew Chan’s press credentials or grant a visa for a replacement correspondent. Chan, a US citizen, is said to be the first reporter in 14 years to be ejected from China.

During Chan’s five years in China she covered a vast range of topics, including environment, foreign policy, economics, social justice and labour rights. She produced several reports on China’s secret “black jails”, and in 2010 was blocked by Chinese authorities from visiting Liu Xia, the wife of jailed Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.

It is still not entirely clear what prompted Chan’s expulsion, but according to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China(FCCC), Chinese officials had “expressed anger” at a documentary the channel aired last November. Chan was not involved in the making of Prison Slaves which investigated camps in which prisoners were said to be forced into manual labour.

“They have also expressed unhappiness with the general editorial content on Al Jazeera English and accused Ms Chan of violating rules and regulations that they have not specified,” the FCCC said in a statement on its website.

The group said it was “appalled” by the decision, calling it “the most extreme example of a recent pattern of using journalist visas in an attempt to censor and intimidate foreign correspondents in China”.

Findings from an FCCC survey point to Chan’s expulsion being part of a worrying climate for reporters in the People’s Republic. The group says that:

  • Over the past two years 27 foreign reporters were made to wait for more than four months for visa approvals. Thirteen of these had to wait for more than six months and were still waiting at the time of the survey.
  • Three requests presented in 2009 had not received a response, which in practice meant they had been denied.
  • Twenty eight permanent postings or reporting trips had been cancelled since 2009 because applications for the required journalistic visas were rejected or ignored by the Chinese authorities.
  • In six cases foreign reporters say they were told by the Foreign Ministry officials that their bureaux’ visa applications had been rejected or put on hold due to the content of the bureaux’ or the applicant’s previous coverage of Chinese affairs.

Praise for Chan’s work was widespread today. “She served as a voice for the voiceless, often putting herself in dangerous positions to get stories of injustice out in the open,” Charles Custer of ChinaGeeks said in a blogpost today, noting how much of Chan’s reporting focused on local stories rather than those of central government.

“Her removal is an embarrassment, the childish retribution of a government it seems is perpetually more concerned with silencing problems than with solving them,” Custer added.

Evan Osnos of the New Yorker was in agreement, arguing that the move “revives a Soviet-era strategy that will undermine its own efforts to project soft power and shows a spirit of self-delusion that does not bode well for China’s ability to address the problems that imperil its future”.

Mark MacKinnon of the Globe and Mail also highlighted the significance of Chan’s case for Chinese reporters:

This false freedom given to reporters working in China is much more important than Melissa’s case or the careers of any of the foreign correspondents based in China. What’s at stake is not only the outside world’s (already poor) understanding of this rising but paranoid superpower, but also the future of journalism inside China. Chinese journalists have told me that they watch the foreign correspondents with envy, wishing they could report about their own country as freely as we do. Our fight to do our job is intertwined with their fight to do theirs.

Al Jazeera said today that its media network will continue to work with Chinese authorities in order to reopen its Beijing bureau.

“We are committed to our 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,” Salah Negm, director of news at Al Jazeera English, said in a statement.