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Al Jazeera closes English-language bureau in China after visa denial

By Hilary Whiteman, CNN
May 8, 2012 -- Updated 2124 GMT (0524 HKT)
Melissa Chan, Al Jazeera's Beijing correspondent, has been forced to leave China after authorities refused her visa request.
Melissa Chan, Al Jazeera's Beijing correspondent, has been forced to leave China after authorities refused her visa request.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: The U.S. State Department says it is "disappointed" by China's decision
  • Al Jazeera's Beijing correspondent has been denied a visa by China
  • China has expressed "anger" over an Al Jazeera report, a journalist group says
  • A Chinese spokesman says foreign journalists must abide by Chinese laws and regulations

Hong Kong (CNN) -- International broadcaster Al Jazeera says it has closed its English-language bureau in Beijing after Chinese authorities refused to renew the press credentials of correspondent Melissa Chan.

The broadcaster expressed disappointment with China's decision, which it said came after repeated attempts to apply for a visa through the normal procedures.

It said it had no choice but to close the bureau because China had also denied its requests for a correspondent to replace Chan.

"We are committed to our coverage of China," Salah Negm, director of news at Al Jazeera English, said in an article on the broadcaster's website. "Al Jazeera Media Network will continue to work with the Chinese authorities in order to reopen our Beijing bureau."

Al Jazeera's Arabic-language bureau in Beijing will continue to operate normally, said Ezzat Sabe Shahour, the bureau chief.

Foreign media under pressure in China

At a Ministry of Foreign Affairs news conference Tuesday, spokesman Hong Lei said China welcomes objective reporting from foreign journalists, describing the reporting environment as "very open and free."

"At the same time," he said, "foreign journalists should abide by Chinese laws and regulations while reporting in China and follow the professional ethics."

He added: "We have been dealing with relevant media and foreign journalists in accordance with relevant laws and regulations as well as the actual performance of the journalist."

Chan, a U.S. citizen, is thought to be the first accredited foreign correspondent to lose the right to report in China since the expulsion of Yukihisa Nakatsu, a reporter for Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, in October 1998.

Chinese authorities have yet to comment on the reasons for Chan's visa denial.

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (FCCC) suggested the ban was related to the airing of an Al Jazeera documentary in November on forced labor camps in China.

(Chinese) authorities will often delay visa approval or threaten to revoke it as part of an overall strategy of intimidation
Bob Dietz, Committee to Protect Journalists

In a statement on its website Tuesday, the FCCC -- of which Chan is a board member -- referred to Chinese "anger" over the report, which it said Chan "didn't even play a part in making."

The report was part of a documentary series called "Slavery: A 21st Century Evil," which accused China of "state-sponsored" slavery by forcing prison inmates to work.

The Chinese authorities "have also expressed unhappiness with the general editorial content on Al Jazeera English and accused Ms. Chan of violating rules and regulations that they have not specified," the FCCC said.

The U.S. State Department said Tuesday that it has been closely following Chan's case.

"We're disappointed in the Chinese government and how the Chinese government decided not to renew her accreditation," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters. "To our knowledge, she operated and reported in accordance with Chinese law, including regulations that permit foreign journalists to operate freely in China."

During her five years at Al Jazeera's Beijing bureau, Chan has filed nearly 400 reports on a variety of subjects including the economy, domestic politics, foreign policy, the environment, social justice, labor rights and human rights, the broadcaster said.

In one report in 2010, Chan was blocked by authorities as she tried to visit the wife of jailed Chinese Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo. The following year, she profiled artist Zhang Bingjian, who was painting thousands of portraits of corrupt Chinese officials. And as recently as March this year, Chan accompanied an angry family as they tried to find relatives they claimed had been "disappeared" and detained at China's so-called "black jails."

The FCCC said it was "appalled" by the decision to block Chan's visa application, which it called "the most extreme example of a recent pattern of using journalist visas in an attempt to censor and intimidate foreign correspondents in China."

There is no suggestion the decision to deny Chan a visa is related to recent reporting on the scandal engulfing former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai or the attempts by the blind activist Chen Guangcheng to leave the country.

Video: China blocks Anderson Cooper report on Chen

Chan confirmed on Twitter that she no longer has reporting rights in China, saying, "Yes my press credentials have been revoked and I will no longer report f/ China."

Chan declined to comment further when phoned by CNN.

Al Jazeera's China bureau is one of 60 operating worldwide as part of its English-language network, which opened in 2006, according to the broadcaster's website.

The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) urged China to "immediately grant" a visa to Al Jazeera English correspondents, adding that the refusal to approve Chan's application "marks a real deterioration in China's media environment."

"Surveillance and harassment are the norm for reporters on the China beat, and authorities will often delay visa approval or threaten to revoke it as part of an overall strategy of intimidation. But effectively shuttering an international news outlet is a disturbing development," Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia program coordinator, says in a statement on the organization's website.

According to the Information Department of China's Foreign Ministry, 649 accredited journalists were working in China as of February 2012. Most were based in Beijing, filing reports for 423 news organization from 58 countries.

Citing its own survey and additional research, the FCCC said that in the past two years, 27 foreign reporters were made to wait for more than four months for visa approvals, with 13 of those of waiting six months or more.

It claimed that 28 permanent postings or reporting trips had been canceled since 2009 because the Chinese authorities had rejected or ignored applications for the relevant visas.

A recent report from the International Federation of Journalists detailed what the nonprofit called a "clampdown on media in China in 2011," describing harassment of reporters and a growing push toward Internet censorship.

"The online media is still the main target for government crackdowns, with a new body established to oversight the online media environment," the report said. "For foreign journalists, delaying of visa applications became a tool used by the authorities to threaten and restrain journalists."

CNN's Jaime FlorCruz and Simon Harrison contributed to this report.

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