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Al Jazeera English shuts China bureau after visa denial

posted 8 May 2012, 05:01 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 8 May 2012, 05:02 ]

Al Jazeera International has closed the China bureau for its English channel after Chinese authorities refused to renew its correspondent's visa, marking the first such expulsion of an accredited foreign correspondent in over a decade.

BEIJING, CHINA (MAY 8, 2012) (REUTERS) - Al Jazeera has closed the China bureau for its English channel after Chinese authorities refused to renew its correspondent's visa, marking the first time an accredited foreign correspondent has been forced to leave the country in over a decade.

Melissa Chan, who declined to comment, had reported from Beijing for Al Jazeera's English language channel since 2007, as well as maintaining a Twitter feed with over 15,000 followers.

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (FCCC), which Beijing does not recognise, said the Chinese authorities' decision to allow Chan's accreditation to lapse came after they expressed dissatisfaction about some of Al Jazeera's content, including a documentary produced overseas.

The FCCC quoted Chinese authorities as saying that Chan, a U.S. citizen, had violated unspecified rules and regulations.

"The FCCC is appalled by this decision. It would appear, although the Chinese government has not yet explained why they refused to renew Melissa's visa, that they did so as punishment for Al Jazeera English Channel for a documentary they aired last November that angered the Chinese authorities. It also appears to be punishing Melissa herself for her tone of coverage of China. If that is the case, the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China finds it quite unacceptable that the government should use editorial content as a criteria by which it grants or withholds journalistic visas because that undermines foreign correspondents' freedom to report and the government says that it strongly upholds that freedom," FCCC vice president Peter Ford told Reuters in a phone interview on Tuesday (May 8).

"There have also been reports that the Chinese government, or Chinese officials, have accused Melissa Chan of breaking rules and regulations. If that is the case, then we think the government should explain which rules and regulations she was said to have violated. So far they haven't done so and that leaves the impression that this is simply a pretext," Ford said.

Chan was a member of the FCCC board.

Al Jazeera has produced a number of critical programmes about China in recent years, including one examining the alleged use of prison labour to make products sold in Western markets.

The Qatar-based news broadcaster said in a statement that it would continue to cover China and hoped to work with Beijing to reopen its bureau.

Al Jazeera's Arabic language channel will continue to have a correspondent in Beijing.

The broadcaster has been applying for more than a year for additional reporting positions in Beijing but has not been granted accreditation.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry defended its decision on Tuesday, saying it addressed the problem in accordance with laws and regulations.

"Foreign correspondents enjoy a very free reporting environment in China. Meanwhile, we stress that foreign correspondents must abide by Chinese law and regulations and journalistic ethics when reporting in China. We handled the media organisation and its staff in question based on the law and regulations and the performance of that person," ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters at a regular briefing on Tuesday. He did not provide further details about the case.

In 1998, China expelled a Japanese and a German journalist, both accredited, in unrelated cases for allegedly possessing state secrets. In 1995, authorities did not renew a German reporter's accreditation, citing "aggressive, biased" reporting.

Unaccredited foreign reporters have been expelled more recently.

China requires all foreign journalists to renew their accreditation annually, while other business visas are typically multiple-year visas.

There are about 700 overseas or Hong Kong journalists working in Beijing.