Al-Jazeera English Forced to Close China Bureau After Correspondent Expelled

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Kamran Jebreili / AP

Al-Jazeera is based in Doha, Qatar

The Chinese government has expelled al-Jazeera English’s correspondent, marking a further deterioration in the country’s tolerance of foreign journalists. The English-language network said Tuesday that it was forced to close its China bureau after authorities refused to renew correspondent Melissa Chan’s visa and credentials. The government has also declined to grant visas for other correspondents from al-Jazeera English, meaning the network was unable to bring in a replacement after Chan’s visa renewal was blocked.

Chan, who left Beijing for Los Angeles on Monday night, became al-Jazeera English’s China correspondent in 2007. A Hong Kong–born U.S. citizen, she is known for filing stories on sensitive issues such as China’s illegal black jails, corruption and the disappearance of Liu Xia, the wife of imprisoned Chinese Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. Chan, 31, will spend the 2011-12 academic year at Stanford University on a John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship and will continue working for al-Jazeera after a sabbatical, she announced over Twitter. She declined an interview request.

Her network said it was disappointed in her removal and is continuing to search for a way to station a journalist in China. “We’ve been doing a first-class job at covering all stories in China. Our editorial DNA includes covering all stories from all sides,” Salah Negm, director of news at al-Jazeera English said in a written statement. “We constantly cover the voice of the voiceless and sometimes that calls for tough news coverage from anywhere in world.”

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The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) said it was “appalled by the decision of the Chinese government to take this action.” The government had complained about a November 2011 documentary on China’s labor camps. Chan didn’t participate in making that documentary, but the authorities 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. “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.”

The closing of al-Jazeera English’s bureau in Beijing is particularly awkward for China, which has looked to the Qatar-based network as an example of how non-Western nations can expand their global media clout. But the aggressive approach of al-Jazeera clashes with the style China’s highly censored state-media organs. Last year al-Jazeera Arabic’s China correspondent Ezzat Shahrour criticized the handling of the Arab Spring by Chinese media, which he said downplayed the level of public support. (The network says its Arabic-language coverage from China is unaffected by the closure of its English-language bureau.)

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After China opened up to foreign media in the late 1970s, expulsion was used as a blunt instrument to remove journalists the authorities felt were overly critical. John Burns of the New York Times was kicked out in 1986, and Jonathan Mirsky, then a correspondent for the Observer was booted in September 1991. Alan Pessin of the Voice of America and John Pomfret of the Associated Press were expelled for their coverage of the 1989 massacre of protesters in Beijing. Such a step has been used far less frequently in recent years. Andrew Higgins, Beijing correspondent for the Independent, was ejected in 1991 after he was found with an internal document describing a crackdown in Inner Mongolia. The government expelled Henrik Bork, Beijing bureau chief for Germany’s Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper, in 1995 and Yukihisa Nakatsu of Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun in 1998.

In 2007 China announced that it was easing its restrictions on foreign journalists working in the country. The Foreign Ministry issued a set of rules with the chief requirement that they seek permission of interview subjects, which is standard reporting procedure anyway. But further restrictions remained for Tibet, which requires separate permission to visit, making it impossible for most journalists to cover firsthand the March 2008 riots in Lhasa and other Tibetan cities. Last year reporters were told they couldn’t visit parts of central Beijing after a call for a Tunisian-style Jasmine Revolution was issued online for China, and journalists for Bloomberg News and the BBC were assaulted on the street by men believed to be plainclothes police. Last week several reporters were warned for reporting in Beijing’s Chaoyang Hospital, where blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng was receiving medical treatment after escaping from house arrest in Shandong province.

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