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Irish journalist leaves China 'in a hurry' after coming under increased surveillance

Murray is married to senior BBC correspondent John Sudworth who faced backlash for his reporting on Xinjiang rights abuses.

Image: RTÉ/PrimeTime

Updated Mar 31st 2021, 5:26 PM

IRISH JOURNALIST YVONNE Murray, who regularly reports for RTÉ News, has said she and her family were forced to leave China after facing legal threats and pressure from Chinese authorities.

Murray is married to senior BBC correspondent John Sudworth who has faced backlash for his reporting on Xinjiang rights abuses and the coronavirus pandemic.

After coming under increased surveillance, Murray said the family made the decision to relocate to neighbouring Taiwan, leaving “in a hurry” last week. 

“It’s really because the pressure and the threats from the Chinese government just became too much, and this has been going on for some time,” Murray told RTÉ Radio’s News at One. 

She said authorities took particular issues with John’s reporting for the BBC and have been trying to hinder his work for the past three years. 

“When the BBC continued to report on stories that the government didn’t like they continued to ratchet up the pressure, they began coordinated personalised attacks via state media, and then legal threats,” said Murray. 

“And of course it’s worth noting, there’s no way for us as foreign correspondents to counteract those kinds of propaganda campaigns inside China because foreign news outlets are blocked.”

The decision to leave was very tough, she said, particularly as two of their three children were born in China and they all speak fluent Chinese.

“For them, it’s home. It’s particularly distressing for them to face the reality that they might never be able to go back to the place that they were born as long as the Chinese state is so determined to target and punish journalists for simply doing their job as we were.”

She said the family were followed by plainclothes police during their departure from China, something which confirmed “that we were making the right decision”. 

Both Murray and Sudworth said they will continue to cover China from their new base in Taipei, Taiwan.

“The Chinese government tells us that our reporting suggests that we hate China, and that’s just simply not the case, we wouldn’t have stayed so long if we didn’t like China,” said Murray.  

So in the end, you know the secret police who followed us as we left. It’s a sad, departing memory, but it can’t erase all the other happy memories we have from China and we’ll always have those.

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

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

“The BBC has faced a full-on propaganda attack not just aimed at the organisation itself but at me personally across multiple Communist Party-controlled platforms,” Sudworth told BBC Radio 4.

“We face threats of legal action, as well as massive surveillance now, obstruction and intimidation, whenever and wherever we try to film,” he added.

In recent weeks, Chinese state media and officials have repeatedly attacked Sudworth for his reporting on alleged forced labour practices targeting Uyghur Muslim minorities in Xinjiang’s cotton industry in particular.

The BBC also confirmed Sudworth’s relocation after state media tabloid Global Times reported yesterday he was “hiding” in Taiwan.

“John’s work has exposed truths the Chinese authorities did not want the world to know,” the broadcaster said in a statement on Twitter.

RTÉ Managing Director for News and Current Affairs Jon Williams said “once she is ready,” Murray will continue to report on China from Taiwan for RTÉ. 

Xinjiang authorities said mid-March that Sudworth was the target of a civil lawsuit for producing “fake news” about the region.

“Everyone knows that the BBC broadcasts a large number of fake news with strong ideological bias,” Hua Chunying, spokeswoman of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told reporters in Beijing.

But she denied the government had been behind the move to sue him and instead admonished Sudworth for leaving in a hurry and not clearing his name.

“Why did he run away? What does this show?” she said.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, 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.”

It added that he had been kept on “a series of short visas, variously lasting one, three and six months,” putting pressure on his ability to raise his young family.

The club noted that attacks on Sudworth and the BBC escalated after the British broadcasting regulator revoked the license of Chinese state TV channel CGTN in February.

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The Chinese Embassy in Ireland said it “noticed that Ms Yvonne Murray ‘took the decision’ to leave China with her family, according to her own words”.

“According to Chinese media reports, her husband John Sudworth, BBC China correspondent, is criticised by a lot of Chinese for his unfair, unobjective and biased reporting on China. There are also reports that some people and entities in Xinjiang, China are considering suing him for the serious harm his reporting has caused,” the Embassy told TheJournal. 

The Chinese Embassy in Ireland also tweeted: “Nobody has forced or will force her. Sensationalist presentation sells paper but won’t for too long”.

In response, Fine Gael TD Neale Richmond said: “Freedom of the press my eye. A disgraceful & wholly undiplomatic statement.”

Richmond said the Chinese Ambassador to Ireland He Xiangdong should be summoned “urgently”.

Ireland co-chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, Senator Barry Ward said Ireland must make it clear to China that “this kind of behaviour is not acceptable”

Chinese official allegations of ‘fake news’, misinformation and false reporting against legitimate journalists reporting on the Uighur internment camps in Xinjiang, merely further lower China’s standing with the international community and convinces us that the Chinese Communist Party must answer for its abuses of human rights and fundamental freedoms. 

“We must not allow the suppression of facts to occur by the exclusion of journalists.” 

Fianna Fáil TD Malcolm Byrne has urged Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney to call in the Chinese Ambassador to Ireland “as a matter of urgency” to explain why Murray has been forced to leave the country.  

“The continuing deterioration in press freedom and human rights in China is deeply concerning,” said Byrne. 

“There is an urgent need for an Oireachtas debate on the deteriorating human rights behaviour in China. My Oireachtas colleagues and I are deeply concerned about genocide against the Uighur people, the repression of democracy and free press in Hong Kong and ongoing abuses against the Tibetan people and other minorities.  

“In light of these human rights abuses there needs to be a serious review of the European-China trade deal.”  

Byrne has also called for the government to support demands to move next year’s Winter Olympics from Beijing “to deny the Chinese government the chance to use the Games for propaganda purposes.” 

- Additional reporting from AFP

About the author:

Adam Daly

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