China forces Al Jazeera to close Beijing news bureau

China refused to renew the visa for Al Jazeera's China reporter. This is the first time an accredited foreign correspondent living in China has been ejected since 1998.

China has expelled the English language correspondent of Al Jazeera, prompting the Qatar-based channel to close its Beijing bureau, an Al Jazeera spokesman said on Tuesday.

Melissa Chan’s expulsion marks the first time an accredited foreign correspondent living in China has been ejected since 1998.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not immediately answer a faxed request for an explanation of the expulsion, but Chinese officials are known to have expressed their anger at a documentary the channel aired last November on the alleged use of slave labor by prisoners in Chinese jails.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told Scandinavian correspondents at a recent private dinner that the documentary had been “fabricated” according to two of the reporters present.

Ms. Chan played no role in making the program, which was produced by Al Jazeera’s London bureau, according to a spokesman for the channel.

During talks between Chinese and Al Jazeera officials earlier this year, the Chinese also accused Chan of unspecified violations of Chinese law. A spokesman for the channel said that Al Jazeera had repeatedly asked for clarification of the nature of these violations but had not been given one.

Chan had made a reputation for herself with a number of investigative reports on issues about which the Chinese authorities are sensitive, such as the violent confiscation of farmers’ land for development projects and the incarceration of citizens protesting such behavior in illegal “black jails” in Beijing.

The Chinese government’s refusal to renew Chan’s accreditation beyond the end of March or to accredit a replacement correspondent left Al Jazeera with “no choice other than to close its Beijing bureau,” the channel said in its statement.

Protesting the expulsion, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) said Chan’s ejection fit “a recent pattern of using journalist visas in an attempt to censor and intimidate foreign correspondents in China.”

In a survey of its members last year, the FCCC said, it had found 27 cases throughout the previous two years in which the Chinese authorities had made foreign reporters wait more than four months for visa approval, and 28 cases in which permanent postings or reporting visits had been canceled because requests for the required visas had been rejected or ignored by the Chinese authorities.

In six cases, reporters said they had been told by Foreign Ministry officials that their bureaus’ visa applications had been rejected or put on hold due to the content of the bureaus’ or the applicant’s previous coverage of Chinese affairs.

The FCCC said it “believes that foreign news organizations, not the Chinese government, have the right to choose who works for them in China, in line with international standards.”

“Just as China news services cover the world freely, we would expect that same freedom in China for any Al Jazeera journalist,” the channel’s director of news, Salah Negm, said in a statement about Chan’s expulsion. He said Al Jazeera would “continue to work with the Chinese authorities in order to reopen our Beijing bureau.”

Chan was refused a standard one-year foreign correspondent’s accreditation – without which reporters are not allowed to live in China – at the end of last year. Instead she was given a two month credential that was extended until the end of March.

On Monday evening she left China for the United States, where she has been offered a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University

Editor’s note: Peter Ford is the Vice President of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, whose statement is quoted in the above article.

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