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Foreign Minister defends press freedom as Australians evacuated from China

Two Australian foreign correspondents have been flown out of China overnight after Chinese authorities demanded interviews with them.

The ABC’s Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review‘s Michael Smith were visited by Chinese police and banned from leaving the country, who eventually relented after 5 days of negotiation with the Australian government.

In a statement, Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said the Australian Embassy in Beijing and Consulate-General in Shanghai engaged with Chinese government authorities to ensure their wellbeing and return to Australia.

The evacuation comes as Australian TV anchor Cheng Lei remains in detention without charge.

There are now no Australian correspondents working on the ground in China.

Ms Payne told Deborah Knight “this is a very disappointing series of events”.

“Australia, of course, is a strong advocate of freedom of the press … and I reaffirm that in this discussion.

“We will work appropriately with media organisations to determine next steps.”

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AFR editor Paul Bailey told Deborah Mr Smith was left shaken after being approached by police in the middle of the night, and told he was a person of interest in the investigation into Cheng Lei.

“He doesn’t know her very well: he’s been to one function where she was at with 20 other journalists.

“The idea that you could be hauled into a police interview and maybe not come out is pretty scary.”

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ABC News director Gaven Morris told Deborah Mr Birtles is “disheartened that this is the way his five-year stint in covering China has ended”.

The public broadcaster has had a presence in China for over 40 years.

“It was in Bill’s best interests for him to consider leaving China, and we were working through those issues when the police came knocking.

“Things are so opaque now in China: there isn’t a lot of information.”

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Image: Nine News