THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
September 8, 2020 at 12:01 JST
In this image made from a video, The Australian Financial Review journalist Michael Smith speaks to the media on his arrival at Sydney airport on Sept. 8. (AP Photo)
CANBERRA--The last two journalists working for Australian media in China have left the country after police demanded interviews with them, the Australian government and Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported on Tuesday.
ABC’s Bill Birtles and The Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith landed in Sydney after flying from Shanghai on Monday night, ABC reported.
Both had sheltered in Australian diplomatic compounds in recent days.
Chinese police arrived at Birtles’ doorstep last week, demanded he submit to questioning and told him he was banned from leaving the country, the ABC reported.
Australian and Chinese officials negotiated for the travel ban to be lifted if Birtles spoke to police.
The journalists left after Australia revealed last week that Australian citizen Cheng Lei, business news anchor for CGTN, China’s English-language state media channel, had been detained.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne confirmed that her government had provided consular support to the two journalists to assist their return to Australia.
“Our embassy in Beijing and Consulate-General in Shanghai engaged with Chinese government authorities to ensure their wellbeing and return to Australia,” she said.
Australia’s travel warning of the risk of arbitrary detention in China “remains appropriate and unchanged,” she added.
ABC new director Gaven Morris said Birtles was brought back to Australia on the Australian government’s advice.
“This bureau is a vital part of the ABC’s international newsgathering effort and we aim to get back there as soon as possible,” Morris said.
“The story of China, its relationship with Australia and its role in our region and in the world is one of great importance for all Australians and we want to continue having our people on the ground to cover it, he added.
Relations between China and Australia were already strained by Australia outlawing covert interference in politics and banning communications giant Huawei from supplying critical infrastructure. They have worsened since the Australian government called for an independent inquiry into the origins of and international responses to the coronavirus pandemic.
Birtles told reporters at Sydney airport that his departure was a “whirlwind and... not a particularly good experience.”
“It’s very disappointing to have to leave under those circumstances and it’s a relief to be back in a country with genuine rule of law,” Birtles said.
Smith said at the airport he had felt “a little bit” threatened in China.
“It’s so good to be home, so happy, I can’t say any more at the moment, it’s such a relief to be home, so really happy,” Smith said.
“It was a complicated experience but it’s great to be here,” he added.
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