Cheng Lei: China says Australian news anchor was arrested on national security grounds

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Foreign ministry spokesman defends questioning of Australian journalists Bill Birtles and Mike Smith

Australian news anchor Cheng Lei was arrested in Beijing on national security grounds last month, China’s foreign ministry spokesman has revealed, speaking just hours after two other Australian journalists arrived home after fleeing the country.

Cheng, a business journalist for the state broadcaster CGTN, was taken into secretive detention in mid-August, the Australian government revealed last week. Consular staff were able to visit Cheng by videolink but were not told why she had been detained.

On Tuesday afternoon, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, Zhao Lijian, told a daily press conference Cheng was “suspected of carrying out illegal activities endangering China’s national security”.

“This case is being handled according to law and Cheng’s legitimate rights and interests are fully guaranteed,” he said.

No further details were provided. Cheng was critical of the Chinese government in English posts on her Facebook page earlier this year, but there has been no indication the posts were linked to her detention. CGTN has since scrubbed all evidence of her employment from its websites.

Cheng is believed to be detained under “residential surveillance at a designated location”, a benignly termed form of solitary detention where she can be held for up to six months without access to a lawyer.

Just hours before Zhao’s press conference, Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, was still indicating Canberra had not been told why Cheng had been detained. Amid a deteriorating relationship between the countries, Payne is among a number of Australian ministers who have indicated they have been unable to get their Chinese counterparts on the phone.

Zhao also defended the questioning of Australian journalists Bill Birtles, from the ABC, and Mike Smith, from the Australian Financial Review. He said the questioning of the two journalists was “normal enforcement of law”.

Both journalists were visited by contingents of state security officers late at night and told they were persons of interest in an investigation into Cheng and that they were banned from leaving the country. They were requested to submit to questioning.

Birtles and Smith, who had already been warned by Australian authorities to consider leaving the country because of Cheng’s arrest, took shelter at diplomatic missions for five days while high-level negotiations had the travel bans lifted in return for interviews.

Birtles said on Tuesday he was asked primarily about his reporting, and not Cheng, and felt the episode was a case of harassing journalists.

Smith said the late-night visit by police to his home was “intimidating and unnecessary and highlights the pressure all foreign journalists are under in China right now”.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said the actions of the Chinese government amounted to “appalling intimidatory tactics that threaten and seek to curtail the work of foreign journalists based in China”.

Those remaining faced the threat of arbitrary detention for doing their work, circumstances which made remaining in China “untenable”, the club said.

“The effort to keep foreign journalists in China against their will marks a significant escalation of an ongoing, sustained Chinese government assault on media freedoms. The FCCC denounces this extraordinary erosion of media freedoms leading foreign journalists to fear that they could be targets of China’s hostage diplomacy.”

The United States said on Tuesday that it had been informed by China’s foreign ministry of unspecified tighter rules for foreign media. “These proposed actions will worsen the reporting environment in China, which is already suffering a dearth of open and independent media reporting,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus wrote on Twitter.

The action against Birtles and Smith is the latest move against foreign journalists by Beijing, following mass expulsions of journalists working for US titles earlier this year. There has been increased harassment and intimidation too, according to an annual report by the foreign correspondents’ club released this week.

The report said Chinese authorities were “using visas as weapons against the foreign press like never before” and that set the stage for further escalation.

Sophie McNeill, a researcher with Human Rights Watch Australia, is concerned for local staff who remain in China working for foreign organisations and other Australian citizens working for foreign news outlets.

“At the top of our concern is the fate of Chinese journalists who don’t have a foreign embassy they can turn to,” she told Sky News, adding that China was the leading jailer of journalists in the world, citing statistics from the Committee to Protect Journalists which found at least 48 were currently in jail.

Peter Greste, a spokesman for the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, said the treatment of Birtles and Smith appeared to be harassment to make a political point.

“Journalists should never be used as political pawns and hostages,” said Greste, who was detained in Egypt as a journalist for Al Jazeera between 2013 and 2015.

“Without Australian journalists operating freely in China, the Australian public has no independent eyes or ears reporting events inside our most important trading partner. That is bad for both Australia and China.”

Marcus Strom, president of Australia’s media union, the MEAA, said the midnight visits to the two correspondents were “appalling”.

“China’s continued intimidation and harassment of foreign journalists, including Australians, represents a dramatic low point for the foreign media’s relations with China,” he said.

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