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The ABC’s Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s Mike Smith saw themselves at the centre of a deadlock between China and Australia. It happened when both journalists sought help from Australian officials after Chinese state security approached them.
They were not allowed to leave China until they underwent an interrogation regarding a fellow Australian journalist who was accused of jeopardising national security.
The two correspondents eventually agreed to answer the questions and Australian diplomats ensured the men could leave China.
However, on Thursday night, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian condemned Australia’s decision to shelter the journalists.
He said doing so while the two countries were still holding discussions was “an interference in China’s internal affairs and judicial sovereignty”.
He added: “Australia’s actions in organising the two journos to hide in the embassy completely exceeds the scope of consular protection and in fact is interference in a Chinese legal case.
“This practice is inconsistent with the status and identity of the Australian embassy in China.”
Australian and Chinese officials engaged in talks for several days before Beijing agreed to let the correspondents leave in exchange for their cooperation with the inquiry.
Senator Simon Birmingham spoke in defence of the Australian government following China’s accusations of interference.
Speaking to ABC on Friday, Sen Birmingham said: “This was respectful of China’s processes but also protected the safety of these two Australian journalists.”
But China’s ejection of the Australian men comes after the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation raided several Chinese journalists.
Sen Birmingham rejected any links between both events.
He said: “Our government takes foreign interference matters very seriously – we appropriately respond in relation to any foreign interference concerns raised in Australia.
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“We go through actions fully in accordance with our own laws, transparently so, our agencies are accountable for how they conduct their operations.”
It comes after Mr Zhao revealed on Wednesday that four Chinese journalists working in Australia were raided.
He said the four journalists were “interrogated on the grounds of a possible breach of Australia’s anti-foreign interference laws.”
The Chinese spokesman said they were asked questions and had their phones, computers and even their children’s tablets seized.
He said: “I would like to stress that the journalists of the Chinese media in Australia have strictly observed local laws and regulations.”
Mr Zhao added that Australia’s actions “seriously interferes with the normal reporting duties of the Chinese media… and causes serious damage to the physical and mental health of the journalists and their families.”
Liberal senator James Paterson has cast doubt over whether Chinese journalists should be allowed into federal parliament.
Sen Birmingham argued that the nationality of accredited journalists should not matter as long as they observed the regulations and requirements.
He said: “When it comes to our parliament, we should be open to any journalist who meets the standard to be able to be there.”
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