Beijing, Sep 9 (efe-epa).- The Chinese state press said Australian intelligence agents broke into the homes of Chinese journalists accredited in Australia in June and interrogated them, in addition to confiscating computers and mobile phones.
State news agency Xinhua published it late on Tuesday, hours after Australian journalists Bill Birtles and Michael Smith (China correspondents for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Australian Financial Review, respectively) confirmed they safely arrived in Australia after being evacuated from China.
Xinhua gives an account of an alleged raid by the Australian Intelligence department that would have taken place on Jun. 26 in an unknown place in the country and affected unidentified journalists and media.
According to the agency, which does not cite sources, the Australian agents entered the homes of Chinese journalists “for no legitimate reason” and interrogated them for hours.
They also allegedly confiscated their computers, mobile phones, USB sticks and various paper documents, and “they also asked Chinese reporters to keep the incident secret”.
This is the latest episode of the diplomatic confrontation between Australia and China, which includes clashes at the commercial, political, academic and, for months, also journalistic level.
Details emerged about the disappearance last week of Australian journalist Cheng Lei, employed in the Chinese state channel CGTN in Beijing and who is being detained and under surveillance.
On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian first addressed the case during the daily press conference: “(Cheng) is suspected of carrying out criminal activities that endangered China’s national security. The necessary measures have been taken and an investigation has been launched.”
He assured that the case is being handled “according to the law” and that Cheng’s rights “are fully guaranteed.”
Also on Tuesday was he hasty departure from China of Australian correspondents Bill Birtles and Michael Smith due to the risk of arrest by the Chinese security forces, who considered them “persons of interest” in the investigation on Cheng.
In recent months, China has notably hardened its stance on information coming out of the country and has been especially sensitive to news that does not agree with the official version of the Chinese Communist Party.
The US media have borne the brunt of the trade war between Beijing and Washington, which has also expelled and complicated the accreditation and operation conditions for Chinese journalists stationed in the US.
China, for its part, has expelled 17 foreign journalists in the first half of 2020 alone, while at least another dozen have received penalties of various kinds, such as one-month accreditations instead of the standard one-year accreditation, according to the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC.)
This adds to an atmosphere of permanent animosity towards the foreign press, whose members are monitored and intimidated on a daily basis, an upward trend, according to the latest FCCC labor conditions report.
However, Beijing insists on making the situation of foreign journalists from independent media accredited in China equal to that of Chinese journalists working for state propaganda outlets abroad, in environments of press freedom that are very different from that offered by China.
For all this, the FCCC has asked the Chinese government on several occasions not to use foreign journalists as “pawns” in its diplomatic disputes.
In the last two weeks alone, China has had major diplomatic disagreements with the United States, Australia, India and the Czech Republic. EFE-EPA