Australian Journalists Forced to Leave China

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Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) journalist Bill Birtles speaks to the media on his arrival at Australia’s Sydney airport, September 8, 2020. Birtles and Australian Financial Review journalist Michael Smith left China after police demanded interviews with them.
© 2020 Australian Broadcasting Corporation via AP

The Australian government helped two Australian journalists living in China leave the country yesterday after a five-day diplomatic standoff.  Amid fears for their safety, Bill Birtles of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation sheltered in Australia’s embassy in Beijing, while Michael Smith of the Australian Financial Review took refuge in the Shanghai consulate. Both left China only weeks after Chinese authorities detained another Australian journalist, Cheng Lei, a business news anchor for the Chinese state-backed media outlet China Global Television Network. Chinese authorities have given no reasons for her arrest.

But for Chinese journalists and activists, there is no foreign embassy to come to their rescue. Journalists and bloggers in China take enormous risks to investigate and report on stories that the China government deems to be sensitive. In February, citizen journalists Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin were forcibly disappeared in Wuhan for reporting independently on the Covid-19 pandemic. They haven’t been heard from since.

Fewer foreign journalists in the country means less scrutiny of China’s human rights record at a time when serious abuses are increasing. In June, an unprecedented 50 United Nations human rights experts issued a joint statement expressing concerns at the Chinese government’s mass violations in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet, the suppression of Covid-19-related information, and the targeting of human rights defenders across the country.  They called on the UN Human Rights Council to “act with a sense of urgency” to monitor China’s human rights practices, including a council Special Session and the creation of an independent international mechanism.

The Australian journalists’ recent experiences make it clear why such scrutiny is necessary. The Human Rights Council’s September session will be Australia’s last during its current three-year term as a council member. It should make it count by working with other governments to call for a special session or urgent debate on China. Foreign Minister Marise Payne should also reconsider the government’s recent decision to abolish the human rights post at the Australian embassy in Beijing. More monitoring of the Chinese government’s human rights record is needed, not less.