Australia rejects claim reporters fled to ‘evade China’s investigation’


Responding to Beijing’s claims that Australian diplomats helped two journalists “evade China’s investigation”, a top minister pointed out that China had agreed to a deal allowing their departure.

Australian officials also denied obstructing a probe into journalists Bill Birtles and Mike Smith who fled China under consular protection this week, saying its diplomats behaved appropriately.

“What our embassy officials did was provide appropriate protection to those two journalists, ensuring they could safely leave China,” Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said.

The pair left China earlier this week after an agreement was struck between Beijing and Canberra to have them questioned by police before leaving.

China’s foreign ministry on Thursday claimed Australia’s actions went “well beyond consular protection”, and said it had interfered in “China’s internal affairs and judicial sovereignty”.

Birtles, a correspondent for national broadcaster ABC, and Smith who worked for the Australian Financial Review, sought refuge in Australian diplomatic missions after being told by Chinese police they were wanted for questioning.

Birmingham insisted that Australia had engaged “appropriately” with Chinese authorities to negotiate a deal that “was respectful of China’s processes but protected the safety of these two Australian journalists”.

The duo’s dramatic flight was the latest flare-up in a protracted squabble between China and Australia over trade, security and responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic.

Both men have been questioned about another Australian citizen, Cheng Lei, who worked as an anchor for Chinese state TV and was detained on unspecified “national security” grounds for nearly a month now. (Source: CNA)