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RTÉ journalist: 'We could no longer justify raising a family in a country which increasingly acts with impunity against foreign citizens'

The European Union has condemned the “harassment” of foreign journalists in China.

Murray reporting for RTÉ  on human rights abuses against China's Muslim minority Uighir people last year.
Murray reporting for RTÉ  on human rights abuses against China's Muslim minority Uighir people last year.
Image: RTÉ News/Youtube

THE ‘FORCED’ DEPARTURE OF Irish journalist Yvonne Murray and her husband, BBC correspondent John Sudworth, from China has been condemned by the European Union.

Murray told The Journal that foreign journalists are being “pushed out” and “prevented from doing our jobs” in trying to report stories from China.

Sudworth and Murray left China for Taiwan after a “full-on propaganda attack” from the authorities increased due to Sudworth’s reporting on the treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang and the coronavirus pandemic.

The family relocated to neighbouring Taiwan last week where they plan to continue their coverage of China.

“This is the latest case of foreign correspondents being driven out of China as a result of continuous harassment and obstruction to their work, coming on top of the expulsion of at least 18 correspondents last year,” a spokesperson for EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said today.

“The EU has repeatedly expressed its concerns to the Chinese authorities at the undue working restrictions imposed on foreign journalists and reported related harassment.

He said that the EU was calling on China to “abide by its obligations under national and international law and ensure the freedom of speech and press, as enshrined in the PRC’s Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Yvonne Murray, who reports on China for RTÉ, told The Journal she was not personally targeted in the way her husband was for his BBC reporting but her experience was “typical of what most journalists encounter trying to report in China today – silencing of sources, harassment and surveillance on the road”.

She said this was especially evident while reporting from Xinjiang “where my team was persistently obstructed and intimidated and we were forced to delete footage of re-education facilities”.

Press freedom groups say space for reporters to operate in China is increasingly tightly controlled, with journalists followed on the streets, suffering harassment online and refused visas.

Murray said that despite the pressures they faced as a family in China, they wouldn’t change the experience of living there for nearly a decade after “having the opportunity to travel and see so much of this incredible country, to learn Chinese and fall in love with Chinese culture”.  

“It will always be home for our children and we look forward to better times when we can return.”

We stayed for a long time, despite the menacing atmosphere, because the China story is so interesting and important and there are fewer and fewer journalists left to tell it. But in the end, with my husband the target of ongoing state-sponsored attacks, we could no longer justify raising a family in a country which increasingly acts with impunity against foreign citizens.

Press freedom 

Chinese state media and officials repeatedly attacked Sudworth for his reporting on alleged forced labour practices targeting Uighur Muslim minorities in Xinjiang’s cotton industry in particular.

The Chinese Embassy in Ireland has attempted to discredit Murray and Sudworth’s accounts of their departure, describing reports that they were forced to leave China as “totally contrary to the facts”.

“Ms Yvonne Murray made her own decision to leave China’s mainland with her husband Mr John Sudworth, BBC China Correspondent,” the Embassy said. 

It is thought that Chinese authorities took issue with Sudworth’s reports in particular due to the global attention his reports received. The BBC said in a statement that his reporting “exposed truths the Chinese authorities did not want the world to know.”

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC), an unofficial advocacy organisation for foreign media operating in China, said Sudworth forms one of an ever-larger number of journalists driven out of China by unacceptable harassment.

At least 18 foreign correspondents were expelled by China last year, during a tit-for-tat row with the United States that decimated the international press presence in the country.

According to the FCCC’s annual report for 2020, reporting conditions for correspondents on the ground deteriorated for the third year in a row.

Harassment of journalists, it said, was especially intense in Xinjiang, where correspondents were visibly followed by police or state security agents, asked to delete data from their devices, and prevented from talking to people.

Of the twelve journalists who travelled to Xinjiang last year, all of them reported being followed by police, four had interviews monitored or disrupted, two were denied accommodation in the region, and two were detained or had a colleague detained.

The FCCC notes that as the number of topics considered by Chinese authorities to be politically sensitive has grown, so too has the surveillance on journalists and sources, both physically and electronically.

“Like other industries, the coronavirus pandemic has forced newsrooms around the world to rely on online communications, a security risk hackers have tried to leverage,” the annual report states.

The organisation says many foreign correspondents have seen their work distorted and misrepresented, or attacked with fabricated charges, including baseless allegations that people interviewed by foreign news outlets were actors paid by foreign intelligence services.

It said new surveillance systems and strict controls on movement – implemented for public health reasons – have been used to limit foreign journalists:

On many occasions, correspondents were forced to abandon reporting trips after being told to leave or be quarantined on the spot. Correspondents have also been required to comply with restrictions that did not apply to other people, whether Chinese or foreign, such as testing requirements.

In an FCCC membership survey:

  • 42% of respondents said they were told to leave a place or were denied access for health and safety reasons when they presented no risk
  • 40% said they had reason to believe their internet accounts had been targeted in attempted hacks in 2020
  • 87% say their WeChat messages (the most common form of online communication in China) are definitely or possibly surveilled by the government
  • 40% experienced physical surveillance, such as being followed.

The report also claims visas have been weaponised by authorities for correspondents seeking renewals and for journalists seeking to begin assignments in China.

“Authorities have also used restricted-term visas for other media to punish journalists whose reporting they disliked,” the FCCC said, describing other instances as “a form of harassment as it means endless rounds of paperwork and government appointments, and limits ability to travel”.

The group said correspondents regularly report receiving threats from the authorities about losing their press credentials, but in the past year, those threats have become “more extreme”.

“One correspondent was told she ‘should have been expelled’. Another was warned they could be subject to legal action or sanctions, including the cancellation of a bureau license,” the report notes. 

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China denies the allegations made in the FCCC report and slammed the group as an “illegal organization, which China has never acknowledged” during a recent press briefing on Sudworth’s “abnormal departure”.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China firmly rejects “manufacturing fake news and disinformation to malign and attack China in the name of so-called freedom of the press”.

“Although Mr Sudworth departed without fulfilling the required procedures, we could have left it there. But then he tried to deflect the blame. And he’s not doing it alone by posing as a victim, but has also rallied the BBC and the so-called FCCC to issue statements,” said Hua Chunying. 

The Foreign Ministry accused the BBC of spreading “a large number of fake news with strong ideological bias” and trying to “extort and threaten China with the abrupt departure of Sudworth”.

“Nothing could be more absurd,” it said in a statement.

As China inches toward becoming the world’s largest economy within the next decade, its influence is growing with it.

Yvonne Murray says this is one of the most important stories of our time but “there are fewer and fewer people who are able to tell it as foreign correspondents are pushed out and Chinese journalists face far greater risks if they do not toe the Party line”.

“Foreign journalists contribute to the world’s understanding of China but more and more we are prevented from doing our jobs.”

About the author:

Adam Daly

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