Al Jazeera shuts English bureau after China visa denial

BEIJING Wed May 9, 2012 12:53am IST

The main door of Al Jazeera's China bureau office is pictured in Beijing May 8, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Lee

The main door of Al Jazeera's China bureau office is pictured in Beijing May 8, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Jason Lee

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BEIJING (Reuters) - Al Jazeera has closed the China bureau for its English channel after Chinese authorities refused to renew its correspondent's visa, marking the first time an accredited foreign correspondent has been forced to leave the country in over a decade.

Melissa Chan had reported from Beijing for Al Jazeera's English language channel since 2007, as well as maintaining a Twitter feed with more than 15,000 followers.

"China addressed this problem in accordance with laws and regulations. The media concerned know in their heart what they did wrong," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters at a regular briefing on Tuesday. He did not provide further details about the case.

"Our laws and policies are extremely clear. When you came to China, our relevant laws and regulations were explained to you."

Chan declined to comment.

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (FCCC), which Beijing does not recognise, said the decision to allow Chan's accreditation to lapse came after they expressed dissatisfaction about some of Al Jazeera's content, including a documentary produced overseas.

Al Jazeera has produced a number of critical programmes about China in recent years, including one examining the alleged use of prison labour to make products sold in Western markets.

The FCCC quoted Chinese authorities as saying that Chan, a U.S. citizen, had violated unspecified rules and regulations.

"This is the most extreme example of a recent pattern of using journalist visas in an attempt to censor and intimidate foreign correspondents in China," FCCC said. Chan was a member of the FCCC board.

The Qatar-based news broadcaster said it would continue to cover China and hoped to work with Beijing to reopen its bureau.

"We are committed to our coverage of China. Just as China news services cover the world freely, we would expect that same freedom in China for any Al Jazeera journalist," the channel said in an emailed statement.

Al Jazeera's Arabic language channel will continue to have a correspondent in Beijing.

In Washington, the U.S. State Department voiced dismay at China's handling of the case.

"We are disappointed ... in how the Chinese government decided 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," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters.

He later said that the United States had raised the matter with Chinese officials.

In 1998, China expelled a Japanese and a German journalist, both accredited, in unrelated cases, accusing them of possessing state secrets. In 1995, authorities did not renew a German reporter's accreditation, citing "aggressive, biased" reporting.

Unaccredited foreign reporters have been expelled more recently.

China requires all foreign journalists to renew their accreditation annually, while other business visas are typically multiple-year visas.

There are about 700 overseas or Hong Kong journalists working in Beijing.

(Reporting By Lucy Hornby and Michael Martina; Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by Don Durfee, Brian Rhoads and Vicki Allen)

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