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China detained Australian journalist for "endangering national security"

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Australia no longer has any correspondents working on the ground in China for the first time since the 1970s, after two journalists were forced to flee the country and Chinese officials revealed a third had been detained for suspected “criminal activities endangering China’s national security”.

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Bill Birtles from the ABC and Michael Smith from the Australian Financial Review returned home on Monday after a five-day diplomatic stand-off.

Chinese police told the journalists they were people of interest in the case of Australian television anchor Cheng Lei, who remains in detention without charge.

Both men were ordered to report for questioning, and sheltered in Australian diplomatic compounds for days as their travel rights were revoked.

Consular officials secured safe passage after the pair agreed to be interviewed.

Both journalists say they are relieved to be home but disappointed about the circumstances surrounding their departure.

The Department of Foreign Affairs urged the ABC to withdraw Birtles from China last week after it learned of Cheng Lei’s detention.

Cheng Lei, a high-profile business anchor on CGTN, an English-language channel, was detained three weeks ago, and videos of her had been removed from Chinese websites.

“The Australian national Cheng Lei is suspected of carrying out criminal activities endangering China’s national security,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters on Tuesday.

“Compulsory measures have been imposed on Cheng and she has recently been investigated by relevant authorities.”

His comments were Beijing’s first explanation of Cheng’s detention.

“Now this case is being handled according to law and Cheng’s legitimate rights and interests are fully guaranteed,” he said.

He said the questioning of the two other Australian reporters was a normal enforcement of the law which authorities had strictly adhered to during their investigations, Reuters news agency reported.

He said China protected the legitimate rights and interests of news gathering staff and they had the obligation to comply with the laws and regulations in China.

“As long as foreign journalists conduct news reporting in accordance with laws, they should have nothing to worry about,” Zhao said.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the government had become concerned about the uncertainty posed for other Australian journalists.

Payne said there was no specific intelligence to suggest the journalists would get a knock on the door from Chinese police but it was important to take appropriate precautions.

The Australian government is advising all Australians not to travel to China, warning they could face arbitrary detention.

Payne described the saga as a very disappointing series of events.

“Australia, of course, is a strong advocate of freedom of the press,” she said.

“We will work appropriately with media organisations to determine next steps.”

-with AAP

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