In an unusual joint plea, the publishers of The Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal have signed an open letter to the Chinese government, asking it to rescind its decree expelling their reporters.

“We strongly urge the Chinese government to reverse its decision to force the Americans working for our news organizations to leave the country and, more broadly, to ease the growing crackdown on independent news organizations that preceded this action,” says the letter, which will be published as a full-page ad in each newspaper Tuesday as well as on the news organization’s websites.

Representatives of the newspapers said they believed it was the first time the publishers of all three news organizations had cooperated on such a public statement.

The letter — signed by Fred Ryan of The Post, A.G. Sulzberger of the Times and William Lewis of the Journal — follows the effective expulsion of reporters from the three news outlets by Chinese officials last week.

The decision, which affected American citizens who report for the papers and whose press credentials expire this year, constituted the largest expulsion of journalists from the country in more than 30 years. China often delays accrediting foreign journalists, especially those from western countries, but expulsions have been unusual.

The order was widely seen as the latest escalation in diplomatic tensions that began in mid-February when the Trump administration designated five Chinese media outlets with operations in the U.S. as official government entities, subject to stiffer regulation and scrutiny than foreign journalists.

China fired back the next day, expelling three Wall Street Journal reporters over what it said was an offensive headline on a Journal opinion piece that called China “the Sick Man of Asia.”

The United States then took the battle up a notch on March 2, ordering four of the Chinese news organizations, including the Xinhua News Agency and the China Daily newspaper, to reduce their U.S. staffs by at least a third.

Although it is addressed as “an open letter” to China’s government, the statement from the newspaper publishers seems aimed at American officials, too. The newspapers circulate primarily in the United States. Trump in October ordered federal agencies to cancel their subscriptions to the Times and Post.

In their letter, the publishers said the loss of journalists in China was particularly unwelcome now, as the world seeks information about China’s efforts to combat the novel coronavirus that causes the disease covid-19. The outbreak began in Wuhan, a city in central China.

“The coronavirus pandemic sweeping across borders, sickening and killing people in nearly every country, and sending the world economy into a downward spiral, is a global challenge unlike any other in our lifetimes,” they write. “Perhaps more than any major news event in modern history, this moment underscores the urgent importance of both probing, accurate, on-the-ground reporting from the centers of the pandemic and of sharing the information, insights and lessons that reporting reveals as widely as possible.”

The banning of journalists “is uniquely damaging and reckless,” they said, “as the world continues the struggle to control this disease, a struggle that will require the free flow of reliable news and information.”

They concluded: “Amid tensions between superpowers, journalism bolsters strong, confident societies by providing to leaders and citizens important information and awareness to inform their lives and decisions — even, perhaps especially, when it is challenging to governments. We believe it is unambiguously in the interests of the people of both countries, as well as their leaders, to let journalists do their work.”