BEIJING – Al-Jazeera's sole English-language reporter in China has been expelled, the pan-Arab news network said Tuesday. It's the first time since 1998 that Beijing has kicked out an accredited foreign journalist.
Melissa Chan's expulsion is seen as China's latest attempt to punish international media whose reports the authoritarian government dislikes and sees as besmirching its global image. The move "seems to be taking China's anti-media policies to a new level," Bob Dietz, the Asia coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement.
Qatar-based Al-Jazeera said in a statement that it had no choice but to close its English-language service's bureau because Chan's press credentials and visa were not extended. Chan is a U.S. citizen who worked for the network in China for five years. She had reported extensively on sensitive topics such as illegal seizures of farmland and the imprisonment of petitioners from the countryside in unofficial "black jails."
The U.S. State Department said it had followed Chen's case closely and was disappointed in the Chinese government's decision not to renew her accreditation.
"To our knowledge, she operated and reported in accordance with Chinese law, including regulations that permit foreign journalists to operate freely in China," spokesman Mark Toner told a news briefing in Washington.
Al-Jazeera said no permission to replace Chan was given and its requests for additional visas for correspondents had gone unanswered. The expulsion does not impact Al-Jazeera's Arabic-language service, which maintains several accredited journalists in its Beijing bureau.
Foreign reporters in China often experience harassment, surveillance and visa problems when government officials are angry at their reports. Over the weekend, police called in about a dozen foreign reporters, threatening to revoke their visas for allegedly breaking rules in reporting the case of blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng by entering the parking lot of the hospital where he is receiving medical care.
Al-Jazeera did not say if any reason was given for expelling Chan, who was not among the journalists called in.
Hong Lei, spokesman for the Foreign Ministry which oversees accreditation for international media, refused repeatedly at a regularly scheduled news conference Tuesday to say Chan's accreditation was not renewed.
"We stress that everybody must abide by Chinese laws and regulations and must abide by their professional ethics," Hong said.
The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China said Chinese officials accused Chan of unspecified violations and were unhappy with some of Al-Jazeera's coverage, particularly a documentary that Chan had not been involved in. The documentary, which aired in November, was about China's system of sentencing minor criminals and political prisoners to labor camp prisons.
The club issued a statement Tuesday saying it was "appalled by the decision of the Chinese government to take this action."
Al-Jazeera reported extensively on last year's Arab Spring anti-government uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere — events that profoundly spooked the Communist Party leadership. After calls were posted online for similar protests in China, Beijing responded with a harsh crackdown on media, lawyers, writers and government critics.
The director of news at Al-Jazeera English, Salah Negm, defended Chan and the network's coverage.
"We constantly cover the voice of the voiceless and sometimes that calls for tough news coverage from anywhere in world. We hope China appreciates the integrity of our news coverage and our journalism," Negm said in the network's statement.
A German reporter and a Japanese reporter were the last foreign journalists expelled from China, in late 1998.
Chan has left China and will be returning to California, where she will be taking up a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University.
China had pledged to relax restrictions on foreign journalists as part of its hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics, but changes have been minor and conditions have in some ways grown even more hostile.
Foreign reporters working in China must obtain a press card from the Foreign Ministry before they can apply for a visa. Those documents must be renewed at the end of each year, and the ministry sometimes delays issuing a press card for reporters it is unhappy with.
In Chan's case, the correspondents' club, which is not recognized by the Chinese government, said this year the ministry issued her a two-month press card rather than the standard one-year accreditation, then extended that for one month before refusing to give her another extension, forcing her to leave the country.
Issuing of visas for journalists can take months and some applications receive no response at all. In February, the Washington Post's ombudsman wrote that one of the newspaper's two China correspondents, Andrew Higgins, has not been given a permanent visa to report from inside China since he was hired in 2009.
Higgins, when working for the British newspaper The Independent, was expelled by Beijing in 1991 after reporting on a confidential document about secret arrests in China's Inner Mongolia region.
At the same time, Beijing is attempting to spread its own pro-China take on domestic and international events with a major push into foreign-language media by state broadcaster CCTV and the official Xinhua News Agency.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.