China has kicked out an accredited foreign journalist for the first time since 1998.
Observers fear that the decision to expel Melissa Chan of the Al Jazeera English-language television network is an indication that China is cracking down on foreign media in an attempt to control coverage going forward, particularly during a year of government transition that has already seen two major stories erupt. Chan's expulsion was not related to either story.
Coverage of the Bo Xilai scandal, which involved a top politician, corruption and allegations of murder, has been stymied. So has public discourse on any potentially sensitive topic. Online censorship is rampant. China ranks 174thout of 179 countries (just ahead of Iran and Syria) on press freedom, according the Reporters Without Borders. But longtime China hands also say the situation has improved in China, at least for foreign journalists, and that periods such as these are all part of the job of reporting in China.
Melissa Chan, a U.S. citizen, covered China for five years as the Beijing-based correspondent for Qatar-based Al Jazeera. She reported extensively on sensitive topics including the imprisonment of petitioners from the countryside in unofficial "black jails" and the annual anniversary of the June 4, 1989, massacre of democracy protestors.
In a Twitter feed posted Tuesday from the United States, Chan wrote, "Yes my press credentials have been revoked and I will no longer report f/China."
She is expected to begin a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in California in the fall.
The director of Al Jazeera has defending Chan and the network, saying in a statement, "We constantly cover the voice of the voiceless and something that calls for tough news coverage from anywhere in the world. We hope China appreciates the integrity of our news coverage and our journalism."
Repeated attempts by Chan to renew her journalist visa were denied by the Chinese government until she could no longer legally remain in the country. Her ouster "seems to be taking China's anti-media policies to a new level," said Bob Dietz, the Asia coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Al Jazeera said a statement that China has not granting permission to replace Chan, forcing the network to close its English-language service's bureau.
The Foreign Correspondent's Club of China told the Associated Press that Chinese officials were displeased with a documentary that Al Jazeera bought and aired in November in which Chan was not involved but. "Slavery: a 21 st Century Evil" focused on China's system of sentencing minor criminals and political prisoners to labor camp prisons. The documentary presented the practice as a form of slavery in which millions of prisoners, young and old, are forced to produce goods sold worldwide by major companies, an allegation China denies.
In a statement issued Thursday, the club said it is "appalled by the decision of the Chinese government to take this action."
Leading up to the 2008 Olympics, Beijing pledged to ease restrictions on foreign reporters. In many ways, things have gotten worse. Harassment, surveillance and visa problems are commonplace. Before they are allowed to work, foreign reporters must obtain a press card from the Foreign Ministry. Only then can they apply for a visa. All reporters must re-apply for credentials each year.
Several reporters had their credentials revoked Friday for attempting to enter the hospital grounds where the blind activist Chen Guangcheng was seeking treatment. Nearly a dozen reporters were later questioned by police for allegedly breaking the rules in covering the Chen story.