Australian correspondents asked about detained reporter Cheng Lei. Provincial leader seeking independence over Solomon Islands’ move towards China. Sentences reduced for eight convicted over killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Journalists leave China after visits by police

Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who is under arrest in China.
Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who is under arrest in China.
Credit: AFP PHOTO / Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade / Australia Global Alumni

Great power rivalry

China: On Monday night, the ABC’s Bill Birtles and Mike Smith from The Australian Financial Review were rushed out of China after being informed by authorities they were implicated in a national security case. Their departure means that, for the first time since 1973, the Australian media has no correspondents in China.

Australian diplomats warned Birtles and Smith early last week that they should leave the country due to concerns about their safety, following the detention in August of Cheng Lei, a Chinese-born Australian television news anchor at English-language state broadcaster China Global Television Network.

About 12.30am last Thursday, Chinese security officers visited Smith’s and Birtles’ homes and informed them they were banned from leaving the country and must submit to questioning over a national security case. The pair took shelter in Australia’s diplomatic missions in Beijing and Shanghai for five days as officials wrangled to arrange their departures from China. Eventually they were allowed to fly out, but only after being questioned by Chinese authorities.

“It’s a relief to be back in a country with genuine rule of law,” Birtles said after returning to Sydney on Tuesday. “But this was a whirlwind and it’s not a particularly good experience.”

Both journalists said Chinese authorities did not ask about particular stories they had worked on but were interested in Cheng. Birtles said he knew Cheng but not well. Smith said he had never spoken to her.

Australia’s minister for Foreign Affairs, Marise Payne, criticised the treatment of the journalists and indicated Australian officials still did not know the reasons for Cheng’s arrest.

“This is a very disappointing series of events, and I’m also very disappointed that we [have] major media organisations … disrupted in their ability to report on China,” she told Radio 2GB.

The departure of Birtles and Smith continues China’s growing assault on the foreign media amid rising tensions between Beijing and the West. According to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, 17 foreign journalists were expelled from the country in the first half of 2020. The China correspondents for The Australian and Nine media are currently in Australia – it remains unclear when or whether they can return. Australian media now has no on-the-ground coverage of the world’s most populous country and our largest trading partner.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said foreign journalists were welcome in China and those who obey the law have “no need … to worry”.

The neighbourhood

Solomon Islands: The most populous province in Solomon Islands, Malaita, has threatened to break away from the rest of the country over concerns about the national government’s moves to forge closer ties with China.

The premier of Malaita, Daniel Suidani, expressed anger at the government’s controversial decision to allow entry to a flight from China carrying more than 80 Chinese workers. This followed the move by Solomon Islands last year to switch its diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China – a shift Suidani opposed. Solomon Islands had been the largest remaining Pacific ally of Taiwan but ended the 36-year-long relationship after concluding Beijing would deliver greater development and commercial benefits.

Suidani now plans to hold an independence referendum in Malaita, which has a long history of calling for self-determination. He said Solomon Islanders strongly opposed the arrival of the flight from China, which included the new Chinese ambassador and workers employed to build a sports complex for the 2023 Pacific Games. The country has no recorded cases of Covid-19 and has enforced strict measures to prevent an outbreak.

“I feel it is not worth [it] to stay with a leadership that doesn’t hear the cries of the people,” Suidani told Radio New Zealand last week.

“What is really important, the stadium or the people’s lives?”

The national government said this week that Suidani has no powers to hold a referendum and cannot legally use provincial funds to conduct a vote.

Democracy in retreat

Saudi Arabia: Two years after the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, a court in Riyadh relaxed the sentences of eight defendants following a closed-door process that was described by a United Nations official as a “parody of justice”.

Khashoggi, a 59-year-old Washington Post columnist and critic of the Saudi royal family, is believed to have been strangled and then dismembered by a 15-person assassination squad after he entered the consulate to collect documents that would have allowed him to get married.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has insisted he was not aware of the operation, although the CIA and a United Nations envoy have linked him to the killing.

A secret trial of 11 suspects initially delivered death sentences to five and lengthy jail terms to three others. But, in a final court ruling delivered on Monday, the sentences of the eight have been reduced to between seven and 20 years. None of the defendants has been named, and it is not clear whether they are the suspected members of the assassination team.

The lighter sentences came after Khashoggi’s son said he and his siblings “pardoned” the murderers, although analysts have speculated the pardon may have been coerced or motivated by state compensation the children have received.

Agnes Callamard, a UN special rapporteur, said in a tweet on Tuesday that the trial process was “neither fair, nor just, or transparent”.

“These verdicts carry no legal or moral legitimacy,” she said.

Spotlight: Greece–Turkey standoff

Since the discovery of a giant natural gas field off the Israeli coast in 2010, countries across the eastern Mediterranean Sea have continued to detect vast underwater reserves of oil and gas in the region. The finds have led to co-operation between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Egypt, raising hopes that the series of lucrative offshore fields would offer opportunities for improving their energy security.

Instead, discoveries around Cyprus have exacerbated long-running tensions between Greece and Turkey.

Initially, the dispute was focused on resources as Turkey sent exploration ships accompanied by navy vessels to waters off Northern Cyprus. Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974, which led to the division of the island and the creation of Northern Cyprus, the statehood of which is recognised by Turkey but by no other countries.

The dispute has since widened, as Turkey and Greece have feuded over exploration rights off the Turkish coast, which is peppered by Greek islands. The two nations, which are both members of NATO, have deployed naval and air forces to back their claims. Last month, naval vessels from the two countries had a minor collision.

Turkey has called for negotiations over the maritime boundaries, but Greece says Turkey must first withdraw military forces from contested areas.

Last weekend, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Greece should enter talks or face potential military conflict.

“They’re either going to understand the language of politics and diplomacy, or in the field with painful experiences,” he said.

Earlier this year, several parties around the Mediterranean, including Greece, Israel and Egypt, established a group to co-operate on promoting the region as a global energy hub. Turkey is not a member. Its involvement might defuse tensions, but it was excluded because the bloc includes Cyprus, which Turkey does not recognise.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 12, 2020 as "Australian journalists leave China after police visits ".

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