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Australian journalists leave China after police, diplomatic drama

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Two Australian journalists working in China have been rushed out of the country after seeking diplomatic protection following late night police visits to their homes.

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Bill Birtles from the ABC and Michael Smith from the Australian Financial Review were evacuated after a diplomatic stand-off.

The saga began when Chinese state security offices visited the homes of both men last week.

The reporters sheltered in Australian diplomatic compounds for several days after local police demanded interviews with them.

Australian diplomats negotiated with Chinese officials to allow both men to leave the country after they agreed to be interviewed.

The pair boarded a flight to Sydney on Monday night and touched down on Tuesday morning.

“The ABC has brought back China correspondent Bill Birtles to Australia following advice from the Australian government,” a spokeswoman told AAP.

“This bureau is a vital part of the ABC’s international newsgathering effort and we aim to get back there as soon as possible.”

Smith said it was great to be home.

“The late night visit by police at my home was intimidating and unnecessary and highlights the pressure all foreign journalists are under in China right now,” he told the AFR.

The media union said it was now clear that China was an unsafe place for Australian media.

“The treatment of these Australian journalists, including a midnight police raid on the home of one journalist, is appalling,” said MEAA Media federal president Marcus Strom.

“China’s continued intimidation and harassment of foreign journalists, including Australians, represents a dramatic low point for the foreign media’s relations with China in almost 50 years.

“The threats made by Chinese authorities, their interrogations, and the ban on leaving the country, forced the two journalists to seek refuge in diplomatic compounds until an agreement could be reached that allowed the pair to urgently return to Australia.”

Strom said China had also detained Australian journalist Cheng Lei.

“The treatment of Cheng, an Australian citizen working for the Chinese state broadcaster, is particularly worrying as she has been detained in secret and little detail of why she was arrested has emerged,” he said.

“It is clear that China, and by extension Hong Kong through the recent National Security Law, is unsafe for foreign journalists. These outrageous attacks on press freedom place any foreign correspondents reporting from China at risk.

“China is isolating itself from the world’s gaze and demonstrating it will not brook any scrutiny of its activities. It threatens and intimidates journalists using ‘national security’ as a catch-all excuse.

“This is an extremely disappointing development. It has come swiftly, it is extremely aggressive and it will do great harm to China’s reputation around the world.”

-with AAP

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