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Last 2 journalists working for Australian media leave China


The last two journalists working for Australian media in China have left the country after police demanded interviews with them and temporarily blocked their departures, the Australian government, and their employers said Tuesday.

Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s Bill Birtles and The Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith landed in Sydney after flying from Shanghai on Monday night, both news outlets reported.

Both had sheltered in Australian diplomatic compounds in recent days.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the closing session of China's National People's Congress in Beijing in May. (AP)

Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the closing session of China’s National People’s Congress in Beijing in May. (AP)

The journalists left after Australia revealed last week that Australian citizen Cheng Lei, a business news anchor for CGTN, China’s English-language state media channel, had been detained.

Both journalists were told they were “persons of interest” in an investigation into Cheng, The Australian Financial Review reported. Seven uniformed police visited each journalist’s home in Beijing and Shanghai at 12:30 a.m. Thursday, the newspaper said.

Australian Embassy officials in Beijing told Birtles last week that he should leave China, ABC reported.

Birtles was due to depart Beijing on Thursday and was holding a farewell party on Wednesday when police came to his apartment and told him he was banned from leaving the country, ABC said. He was told he would be contacted on Thursday to organize a time to be questioned about a “national security case,” his employer said.

Birtles went to the Australian Embassy, where he spent four days while Australian and Chinese officials negotiated. Smith had similarly holed up at the Australian Consulate in Shanghai.

Birtles and Smith both agreed to give police a brief interview in return for being allowed to leave the country.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne confirmed that her government had provided consular support to the two journalists to assist their return to Australia.

“Our embassy in Beijing and consulate-general in Shanghai engaged with Chinese government authorities to ensure their well-being and return to Australia,” she said.

Australia’s travel warning of the risk of arbitrary detention in China “remains appropriate and unchanged,” she added.

ABC news director Gaven Morris said Birtles was brought back to Australia on the Australian government’s advice.

“This bureau is a vital part of the ABC’s international news-gathering effort and we aim to get back there as soon as possible,” Morris said.

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“The story of China, its relationship with Australia and its role in our region and in the world is one of great importance for all Australians and we want to continue having our people on the ground to cover it,” he added.

The newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Michael Stutchbury, and editor, Paul Bailey, described the situation as “disturbing.”

“This incident targeting two journalists, who were going about their normal reporting duties, is both regrettable and disturbing and is not in the interests of a co-operative relationship between Australia and China,” they said in a statement.

Relations between China and Australia were already strained by Australia outlawing covert interference in politics and banning communications giant Huawei from supplying critical infrastructure. They have worsened since the Australian government called for an independent inquiry into the origins of and international responses to the coronavirus pandemic.

Australia’s journalist union, Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, said China was no longer safe for foreign reporters.

“These outrageous attacks on press freedom place any foreign correspondents reporting from China at risk,” union president Marcus Strom said in a statement.

Birtles told reporters at Sydney’s airport that his departure was a “whirlwind and … not a particularly good experience.”

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“It’s very disappointing to have to leave under those circumstances and it’s a relief to be back in a country with genuine rule of law,” Birtles said.

Smith told his newspaper: “The late-night visit by police at my home was intimidating and unnecessary and highlights the pressure all foreign journalists are under in China right now.”

Smith said at the airport that he had felt “a little bit” threatened in China.

“It’s so good to be home, so happy, I can’t say any more at the moment, it’s such a relief to be home, so really happy,” Smith said.

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“It was a complicated experience but it’s great to be here,” he added.



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Obama urges George Floyd protesters to push for change, ‘make people in power uncomfortable’


Former President Barack Obama, in a virtual town hall hosted by his foundation Wednesday, called on demonstrators to channel their anger over George Floyd’s death into an opportunity to make leaders “uncomfortable” and pressure them into making real policy changes.

The town hall was hosted by the Obama Foundation’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, which supports young men of color. During the event, Obama said he rejected a debate that emerged in “a little bit of chatter on the internet” about “voting versus protests, politics and participation versus civil disobedience and direct action.”

“This is not an either-or. This is a both,” he said. “And to bring about real change, we both have to highlight a problem and make people in power uncomfortable, but we also have to translate that into practical solutions and laws that could be implemented and monitored and make sure we’re following up on.”

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Former President Barack Obama speaks June 3, 2020, during virtual town hall event with young people to discuss policing and the civil unrest that has followed the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. (My Brother's Keeper Alliance and The Obama Foundation via AP)

Former President Barack Obama speaks June 3, 2020, during virtual town hall event with young people to discuss policing and the civil unrest that has followed the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. (My Brother’s Keeper Alliance and The Obama Foundation via AP)

Obama also urged “every mayor in the country to review your use of force policies” with their communities and “commit to report on planned reforms” before prioritizing their implementation. During a virtual roundtable discussion, he compared current protests to the unrest of the 1960s and said polls show a majority of Americans support the current demonstrations taking place nationwide, despite some “having been marred by the actions of a tiny minority that engaged in violence.”

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Last week, Obama said the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died in Minneapolis police custody May 25 after a white officer kneeled on his neck for more than 8 minutes, “shouldn’t be ‘normal’ in 2020 America.” He laid out plans for change in a post on Medium and countered the argument made by some protesters that demonstrations will facilitate more societal change than voting.

“I’ve heard some suggest that the recurrent problem of racial bias in our criminal justice system proves that only protests and direct action can bring about change, and that voting and participation in electoral politics is a waste of time,” he wrote. “I couldn’t disagree more.”

While the former president said that the current protests stem from a “legitimate frustration over a decades-long failure to reform police practices,” he condemned the vandalism, looting and violence that has, in part, overshadowed the more peaceful aspects of the protests in many cities.

Fox News’ Andrew O’Reilly and The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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