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China expels al-Jazeera reporter as media relations sour

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BEIJING — China has expelled an American journalist working for the English-language arm of al-Jazeera, according to a statement issued Tuesday by the Qatar-based satellite television network whose broadcasts played a pivotal role in the Arab Spring uprisings.

Al-Jazeera said it “has had to close” its English-language bureau in Beijing because Chinese authorities refused to renew the visa and press credentials of correspondent Melissa Chan. The expulsion does not affect the network’s Arabic-language bureau.

Chan, a 31-year-old from California, had reported from Beijing for al-Jazeera since 2007. She left Beijing on Monday on a flight to Los Angeles.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, or FCCC, protested the expulsion, describing it as “the most extreme example of a recent pattern of using journalist visas in an attempt to censor and intimidate foreign correspondents.” An FCCC statement said that “foreign news organizations, not the Chinese government, have the right to choose who works for them in China, in line with international standards.”

The incident marked China’s first expulsion of a foreign journalist in 14 years, although many have been threatened with expulsion and others have had long delays getting visas approved. Most recently, police in Beijing last week threatened to revoke the visas of a dozen foreign reporters for trying to enter the hospital where blind activist Chen Guangcheng is confined.

China’s Foreign Ministry gave no specific reason for Chan’s expulsion. Hong Lei, a ministry spokesman, said in a regular briefing Tuesday: “We welcome foreign journalists to come to China to do objective interviews and reporting, and we also offer lots of assistance and convenience to foreign journalists. The interviewing environment that foreign journalists enjoy in China is very free.

“Foreign journalists in China must abide by the relevant laws and regulations, and they must abide by the code of conduct for journalists,” Hong said. He did not indicate what rule Chan may have violated.

The tightening of controls on journalists began in earnest last year at the start of the Arab Spring uprisings, when anonymous Internet messages, thought to have originated from dissident Chinese Web sites overseas, called for copycat “Jasmine revolution” rallies in Chinese cities. The calls went unanswered but led to a major mobilization by Chinese security forces and repeated clashes between police and foreign journalists. Reporters were summoned to the offices of the Beijing police and told that they must have prior approval to report virtually anywhere and to talk to any Chinese citizen.

In February 2011, Chan reported on what she described as China’s “imaginary revolution.” She also investigated China’s “black jails,” a network of secret detention centers. But she played no role in an al-Jazeera documentary about prison labor that prompted protests by Chinese officials.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the United States was disappointed in Beijing’s decision not to renew Chan’s visa. “To our knowledge, she operated and reported in accordance with Chinese law, including regulations that permit foreign journalists to operate freely in China,” he said.

The correspondents club detailed a host of visa obstacles faced by foreign media. It said that 28 permanent postings or reporting trips had been canceled since 2009 because Chinese authorities had either rejected or ignored applications for the required visas. In six cases, according to the FCCC, foreign reporters said they were told by Foreign Ministry officials that visa requests had been rejected or put on hold because of previous China coverage by the applicants or their media outlets.

The Washington Post currently has one accredited correspondent in China, but the newspaper has been unable to secure accreditation for another correspondent, Andrew Higgins, a Chinese speaker and former student at Shandong University, who was nominated in 2009 to become Beijing bureau chief.

Last fall, three Republican congressmen, complaining about constraints on U.S. media expansion in China, introduced the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act, which would limit the number of visas the State Department is permitted to issue to journalists working for Chinese state media. The bill is currently with the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on immigration policy and enforcement.

There has been a sharp rise in the number of Chinese journalists, nearly all employees of state media, working in the United States at a time when Beijing has been delaying or rejecting applications by journalists for U.S. media wishing to work in China. The Voice of America, which gets government funding and falls under the supervision of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a bipartisan panel, has been waiting for more than three years to expand its Beijing bureau from two to four reporters.

“There is a very alarming disparity between the number of Chinese state media workers whom we grant visas to and the number of visas the Chinese grant to their American counterparts,” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), one of the sponsors of the proposed legislation, said when the bill was introduced.

Rohrabacher said that during the 2010 fiscal year, about 650 Chinese citizens working for party-controlled news organizations entered the United States on journalism visas, while only two American journalists working under the Broadcasting Board of Governors had received permission to work in China. Tara Setmayer, a spokeswoman for the congressman, said Tuesday that reciprocity has not improved since then.

Also Tuesday, the Associated Press quoted Chen, the rights activist, as saying that the Chinese government had quietly promised him that it will investigate abuses he says he and his family suffered at the hands of local authorities.

Chen told the AP on Monday that an official has visited him in his Beijing hospital four times, including to take a statement last Thursday.

“After he took my statement, he said they would launch an investigation as long as there are facts, and that if there are facts about the illegal actions, then the issue definitely would be openly addressed,” Chen said.

Correspondent Andrew Higgins in Hong Kong and staff writer William Wan in Washington contributed to this report.

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