The last two journalists are working Australian Average in China They left the country after police requested interviews and temporarily barred them from leaving, the Australian government and employers said Tuesday.
Bill Bertels of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Michael Smith of The Australian Financial Review landed in Sydney after they flew out of Shanghai on Monday night, both outlets reported.
Both have sought refuge in Australian diplomatic compounds in recent days.
The journalists left after Australia last week revealed the arrest of Australian citizen Cheng Li, business news anchor at CGTN, China’s state-owned English-language media channel.
The Australian Financial Review reported that they were told they were “important people” in an investigation with Cheng. The newspaper said that seven policemen in uniform visited each journalist’s home in Beijing and Shanghai at 12:30 a.m. Thursday.
ABC reported that Australian embassy officials in Beijing informed Bertels last week that he should leave China.
ABC said he was due to leave Beijing on Thursday and was having a farewell party on Wednesday when police came to his apartment and told him he was not allowed to leave the country. The employer said he was told that he would be called on Thursday to arrange a date for his interrogation on a “national security issue.”
Bertels went to the Australian embassy, where he spent four days while Australian and Chinese officials were negotiating. Smith had similarly barricaded itself in the Australian Consulate in Shanghai.
Both Bertels and Smith agreed to a short interview with the police in exchange for being allowed to leave the country.
Secretary of State Maris Payne confirmed that her government provided consular support to journalists to help them return to Australia.
“Our embassy in Beijing and our general consulate in Shanghai are working with the Chinese government authorities to ensure their well-being and return to Australia,” she said.
She added that Australia’s travel warning about the risk of arbitrary arrest in China “remains appropriate and unchanged.”
ABC News Director Gavin Morris said Bertels was sent back to Australia on the advice of the Australian government.
“This office is a vital part of ABC’s international effort to gather news and we aim to get back there as soon as possible,” Morris said.
“The story of China and its relationship with Australia and its role in our region and in the world is a story of great importance to all Australians and we want to continue the presence of our people on the ground to cover that,” he added.
The newspaper’s editor, Michael Stuchberry, and the editor, Paul Bailey, described the situation as “alarming”.
They said in a statement: “This incident, which targeted two journalists, who were carrying out their usual reporting duties, is unfortunate and disturbing and is not in the interest of a cooperative relationship between Australia and China.”
Relations between China and Australia have been already strained over Australia’s ban on covert interference in politics and banning the telecom giant Huawei from providing critical infrastructure. It has been compounded since the Australian government called for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic and international responses to it.
The Australian Journalists’ Association, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, said China is no longer safe for foreign journalists.
“These heinous attacks on freedom of the press endanger any foreign correspondents from China,” Marcus Strom, president of the union, said in a statement.
Bertels told reporters at Sydney Airport that his departure was “a whirlwind and … not a particularly good experience”.
“It is very disappointing to have to leave under the circumstances, and it is comforting to return to a country with a real rule of law,” Bertels said.
“The police visit late at night to my house was frightening and unnecessary, and highlights the pressure that all foreign journalists in China are currently exposed to,” Smith told his newspaper.
Smith said at the airport that he felt “a little” threatened in China.
Smith said, “It’s so good to be home, and so happy, and I can’t say more at the moment, it’s such a relief to be home, and really happy.”
“It was a complicated experience, but it was great to be here,” he added.