Al Jazeera English Closes China Bureau

Al Jazeera English has been forced to close its operations in China after authorities refused to renew the journalist visa of its Beijing correspondent, Melissa Chan. From The New York Times:

She declined to be quoted about her departure, and the government’s motive was not explicitly stated. But among other broadcasts, officials were said by some to have been angered by an English-language documentary on Chinese re-education through labor camps that Al Jazeera produced outside China and broadcast on its network in November ….

Jazeera English officials expressed regret at the closing of their China operations, and said in a statement they had sought additional visas for journalists to expand their coverage here without success ….

Ms. Chan is believed to be the first accredited foreign correspondent to be denied reporting privileges since the October 1998 expulsion of Yukihisa Nakatsu, a journalist with Japan’s largest daily newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun. Mr. Nakatsu was accused of obtaining state secrets, apparently stemming from his contacts with a Chinese economic journalist arrested earlier by state security officers.

Al Jazeera has announced its determination to resume reporting from China:

Melissa Chan has been Al Jazeera English’s China correspondent since 2007. Chan has filed nearly 400 reports during her five years in China. She has covered stories about the economy, domestic politics, foreign policy, the environment, social justice, labor rights and human rights.

Salah Negm, director of news at Al Jazeera English said: “We’ve been doing a first class job at covering all stories in China.Our editorial DNA includes covering all stories from all sides.We constantly cover the voice of the voiceless and sometimes that calls for tough news coverage from anywhere in world ….”

“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. Al Jazeera Media Network will continue to work with the Chinese authorities in order to reopen our Beijing bureau.”

Though unusually harsh, the expulsion fits “a recent pattern of using journalist visas in an attempt to censor and intimidate foreign correspondents”, according to the “appalled” Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China. From a survey taken at the end of 2011:

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.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has also condemned China’s decision:

“We urge China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to immediately grant Al-Jazeera English correspondents accreditation to report the news in China,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia program coordinator. “The refusal to renew Melissa Chan’s credentials marks a real deterioration in China’s media environment, and sends a message that international coverage is unwanted ….”

“Surveillance and harassment are the norm for reporters on the China beat, and authorities will often delay visa approval or threaten to revoke it as part of an overall strategy of intimidation. But effectively shuttering an international news outlet is a disturbing development,” Dietz said.

In recent days, a number of foreign journalists have been threatened with visa revocation for reporting without permission from Chaoyang Hospital, the temporary home of escaped activist Chen Guangcheng.