Al Jazeera English said it was closing its Beijing bureau after China refused to renew the visa of a correspondent whose stories included reports on secret jails and forced abortions in the country.
The government also declined to grant approval to replace the correspondent, Melissa Chan, 31, who had reported from China since 2007, Al Jazeera said yesterday. The U.S. is “disappointed” by the decision and has raised the issue with China, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in Washington.
“The channel has expressed its disappointment in the situation and said it is continuing to request a presence in China,” Salah Negm, director of news at Al Jazeera English, was quoted as saying on its website. “We are committed to our coverage of China.” Chan, who is a U.S. citizen, declined to comment in an e-mail and directed questions to the company’s press office.
The decision not to renew Chan’s visa comes at a sensitive time for China, which has been roiled by the ouster of Chongqing party Secretary Bo Xilai in April and legal activist Chen Guangcheng’s move to seek shelter at the U.S. embassy for almost a week earlier this month. The government is trying to ensure stability as it prepares for a once-a-decade leadership transition later this year.
‘Open and Free’
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei declined to say whether Chan’s visa had been revoked, saying only that the government had dealt with the “relevant” journalist in accordance with the law. In the e-mail she said she left Beijing on Monday night.
“We welcome foreign journalists to report objectively in China,” Hong said at a briefing yesterday in Beijing. “The environment for their reporting activities is very open and free. At the same time, foreign journalists should abide by Chinese laws and regulations.”
The Foreign Correspondents Club of China said it was “appalled” by the move, which it called an expulsion.
Foreign journalists who sought to cover Chen, who is still staying at a Beijing hospital after he left the embassy, were summoned for meetings with security officials, who told them they risked having their visas revoked, according to the FCCC.
The English and Arabic channels of Doha, Qatar-based Al Jazeera gained worldwide attention for broadcasting images of the Arab Spring in the Middle East early last year. Chinese leaders deployed hundreds of security officers at the time to prevent pro-democracy rallies in the country.
The FCCC, where Chan was secretary for 2011-2012, called the ministry’s decision not to renew her visa a “grave threat to foreign reporters’ ability to work in China.” The Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong said objecting to bad news was “a flawed and self-defeating response that should have no place in a strong and modern nation,” according to a statement on its website.
According to the FCCC, Chan had been issued short-term press credentials over the last three months instead of the typical one-year accreditation. Al Jazeera said she had filed more than 400 stories during her time in China, including on human rights, the economy, labor rights and social justice.
The Committee to Protect Journalists urged China to grant visas to Al Jazeera English correspondents. The New York-based organization said that authorities often delay approving visas or threaten to revoke them as part of “an overall strategy of intimidation.”
“The refusal to renew Melissa Chan’s credentials marks a real deterioration in China’s media environment, and sends a message that international coverage is unwanted,” the CPJ said.
Chan will spend part of 2012 and 2013 at Stanford University, where she has been named a John S. Knight journalism fellow, according to Stanford’s website. She will develop an online toolkit to help reporters protect their computers against hacking, according to the website.
During her time in China, Chan filed reports about people displaced by Chinese developers, Bo’s crime crackdown in Chongqing and allegations of jails where people were held illegally in Beijing. A March story showed her visiting what she described as one such jail and included footage of parents who said their children had been detained in unknown locations.
In a 2011 blog post, Chan described intimidation she and her sources had been subjected to while reporting in China, including a time when a van blocked her car’s path and men emerged to bang on their windows and demand they stop what they were doing.
“You develop a level of paranoia sometimes, engrossed in the mission of filming enough footage before getting stopped,” Chan wrote in the post.
— With assistance by Nick Wadhams