Australian and Chinese journalists find themselves caught in diplomatic storm

Australian and Chinese journalists find themselves caught in diplomatic storm

Chinese state media has claimed that Australian intelligence agents raided the homes of Chinese journalists based in Australia as the escalating diplomatic spat between Beijing and Canberra widened into the media sphere. 

The reports about the alleged June 24 searches were published hours after China’s foreign ministry confirmed that Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist working for Chinese state broadcaster CGTN, was detained on suspicion of “endangering China’s national security.” Cheng has been detained since August 14.

Two other Australian journalists – Bill Birtles from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and Michael Smith from the Australian Financial Review (AFR) – fled China this week to avoid questioning by Chinese security agents in the investigation into Cheng.

According to state news agency Xinhua, Australian intelligence agents searched Chinese journalists’ homes on June 26. The article claimed they were interrogated for hours and had their work computers, phones, USBs and written reports confiscated.Australian journalist Cheng Lei has been detained since August 14. 

The agents had asked the journalists to keep quiet about the searches and had “not provided any proper reason or evidence for doing so,” Xinhua said.

A separate report by state-run China News Service (CNS) said Australian officials had conducted searches of four Chinese journalists from three Chinese media organizations in Australia under its 2018 foreign interference laws.

CNS said the agents had concluded the reporters were not engaged in activities that did not fit their roles and said the Chinese journalists had “always respected local laws and abided by journalism ethics of fairness, truth and accuracy.”

“The journalists faced varying degrees of alarm, and they still have lingering fears over what happened,” the report said. 

“They will always have this question in their hearts about why Australia, which has always advocated for freedom of the press and the rule of law, has treated foreign journalists conducting normal work activities in this way.”

The abrupt exit of correspondents Bill Birtles and Michael Smith followed a days-long diplomatic stand-off between the two governments. 

Their departures mean that no journalists are representing Australian media in China for the first time since 1972. There are still other Australian citizens working as journalists in China for American, British and other media companies.