China expels Al-Jazeera English journalist, forcing Beijing bureau to close

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Melissa Chan was expelled from China Monday. She had been a correspondent for Al-Jazeera English in Beijing since 2007 and was the news organization’s only correspondent there who worked primarily in English. Al-Jazeera’s Arabic bureau was unaffected by this decision. Chan, a network press release said, had filed nearly 400 reports in her time there.

The circumstances of Chan’s ouster are murky. Keith Richburg reports from Beijing:

China’s foreign ministry, which is responsible for visas for press accreditation, gave no specific reason for Chan’s expulsion. Hong Lei, the spokesman, said in a regular briefing Tuesday, “We welcome foreign journalist to come to China to do objective interviews and reporting, and we also offer lots of assistance and convenience to foreign journalists. The interviewing environment that foreign journalists enjoy in China is very free.”

The Washington Post, Richburg notes, “has been unable to secure accreditation for another correspondent, Andrew Higgins, a Chinese speaker and former student at Shandong University, who was nominated in 2009 to become Beijing bureau chief.” Higgins, a New York Times report says, “was expelled [from China] in 1991 after being found with confidential information about a supposed crackdown on Inner Mongolian nationalists.”

A number of news reports cite an Al-Jazeera documentary about forced labor as sparking Chan’s expulsion, though Chan had no role in it. That same Times report says harassment of foreign journalists has increased lately:

Most recently, Beijing security officials last week harassed foreign journalists reporting on Chen Guangcheng, the blind lawyer and rights activist who fled house arrest last month to seek refuge in the United States Embassy here.

On Friday, officers temporarily confiscated the identification cards of several journalists who entered the grounds of the Beijing hospital where Mr. Chen is confined. Roughly a dozen other journalists were summoned to the public security bureau and warned that their visas would be revoked if they did not ask permission before seeking interviews with officials and others knowledgeable about Mr. Chen’s situation.

Chan had written about the difficulties of dealing with Chinese officials who oversee media operations. Mark MacKinnon writes that journalists in China enjoy a “false freedom”: “The new rules are left intentionally imprecise. You can speak to anyone and report anything until you speak to the wrong people and report the wrong thing.”

Chan is the first accredited foreign journalist to be kicked out of Beijing since 1998, according to the AP.

Related: Also on Monday, the Committee to Protect Journalists wrote about “how China’s repressive attitude is creeping beyond its borders,” carried by Chinese companies suspected of ties to the government and facilitated by newspaper supplements such as China Daily, an advertorial supplement circulated with several major newspapers including The Washington Post and The New York Times. In 2010, Glenn Mott wrote about teaching journalism in China:

In the Chinese system, foreign journalists are thought to be biased because we do not confirm our facts with the government, which has processed all the sanctioned particulars into a single version of the truth; instead, our arbitrator is our editor. The Chinese way is imperial in origin. Chinese state journalists are asked to report the truth as it was reported to them, or so it sometimes appears. The ministry of information dictates what topics are sacrosanct and out of bounds to reporters; yet these rules remain mostly unwritten, so each editor has to determine the Maginot Line based on home contingencies and the politics of the local prefecture.

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