Foreign journalists have long had a tenuous situation with the Chinese government, and there is a broad consensus that the environment for overseas correspondents is only getting worse in the one-party country. Case in point: Al Jazeera English is closing its only bureau in Mainland China after Chinese authorities refused to renew the press credentials and visa for the pan-Arab network’s correspondent in the country.
Although many journalists noted a distinct improvement in the reporting climate back in 2008, when China issued an unprecedented number of visas for foreign journalists to cover the Beijing Olympics, things seem to have regressed in terms of press freedom.
China has expelled Melissa Chan, an American who has been the Beijing-based correspondent for Al Jazeera English since 2007, the network said Tuesday. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which handles press accreditations, said it could not provide any information about the situation.
Chan left China Monday night after authorities refused to renew her application for a short-term press accreditation, according to a statement posted on the Web site of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, or FCCC. Chan found out in December that her normal press accreditation and visa, which are valid for one year, would not be renewed. She had since been working in the country on temporary press credentials, according to the FCCC.
Chan, reached by phone, declined to comment. She is currently located in the United States, where she will pursue a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University. During her time in China, Chan pursued some hard-hitting topics such as the country’s “black jails” and the repression of minority groups in the far western province of Xinjiang.
While the exact reasons for Chan’s expulsion remain unclear, the FCCC indicated that Chinese authorities were angered over a documentary the network’s English language channel broadcast last November that centered on Chinese labor camps. Chan had no involvement in the production of the documentary.
“We are committed to our coverage of China,” Salah Negm, director of news at Al Jazeera English said. “Just as China news services cover the world freely we would expect that same freedom in China for an Al Jazeera journalist. Al Jazeera Media Network will continue to work with the Chinese authorities in order to reopen our Beijing bureau.”
Journalists who report for Al Jazeera’s Arabic-language channels from China have not been impacted, according to broadcaster, which is based in Doha, Qatar.
According to a survey conducted by the FCCC in 2011, 27 journalists were made to wait for more than four months for visa approvals over the past two years, 13 of whom had to wait for more than six months. Since 2009, 28 permanent postings or reporting trips were cancelled because Chinese authorities rejected or ignored applications for journalist visas. In six cases, foreign reporters told the FCCC that China’s foreign ministry rejected or postponed visa applications because authorities were unhappy with their or their bureaus’ coverage of China.
Over the weekend, a dozen foreign reporters were called in by authorities who threatened to take away their credentials for their coverage of Chen Guangcheng, the blind rights activist who fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, according to Peter Ford, vice president of the FCCC.
Ford said reporters are increasingly facing intervention from police or other authorities when they cover sensitive stories across China.
“The atmosphere in this country is perhaps tenser than it has been in the past and who knows why,” Ford said. “Obviously, what we are concerned about is whether the Chinese government is using editorial content as a criteria for which to grant or withhold journalists’ visas. We believe it should be foreign media organizations who decide who works for them.”
Meanwhile, Al Jazeera said it is “continuing to request a presence in China.”
“The channel has been requesting additional visas for correspondents for quite some time through the normal procedures but these have not been issued,” the company said Tuesday.