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China ducks questions about Al-Jazeera expulsion

In a press conference today, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesman Hong Lei, above, evaded questions about Al-Jazeera being denied journalist visas. (AP/Andy Wong)

"The Beijing branch of Al-Jazeera is still functioning normally."

This was not an auspicious reaction to the news that Al-Jazeera English has closed its Beijing bureau after being refused journalist visas. Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesman Hong Lei's responses at today's press conference did not improve from there, according to a partial transcript published by Voice of America. His explanations for the ministry's refusal to renew credentials for the channel's Beijing correspondent Melissa Chan were a mixture of denial and obfuscation. (Al-Jazeera's Arabic-language bureau continues to operate with several accredited journalists, according to The Associated Press.)

The word of the day was "relevant." "I have just answered relevant questions," Hong says plaintively at the start of the transcript. "The Chinese government will follow strictly relevant regulations in dealing with foreign journalists." Then, "With regard to relevant issue I think relevant media and journalists are clear about that." It was a convenient way to avoid being relevant himself: In the course of nine questions, he used the word 11 times, and we are still none the wiser about why Chan and her news outlet were blacklisted.

Flat denials from the ministry are nothing new. But it is deeply discouraging to hear them over the kind of expulsion not seen in China since the 20th century. The Chinese government issued regulations allowing foreign journalists to work freely before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. CPJ registered concern about the growing pressure on sources and assistants working for them, but the journalists themselves at least had something on paper that justified their right to report.

Increasingly, that freedom, too, has been dialed back, with frequent accounts of foreign reporters attacked and detained on the job. In our alert last night, we argued that much of the interference they face is couched in terms of the very regulations meant to protect them. The rules allow them to interview any consenting subject, yet journalists reporting on human rights activists like Chen Guangcheng are now accused of reporting "illegally" that he is staying at Beijing's Chaoyang Hospital, because they did not get prior consent. Never mind that Chen has been physically and illegally isolated from the press for years--his consent in that case was a moot point.

So where should the press go for permission? What do they do to make sure they are not breaking any laws? How can other news outlets avoid being expelled in future? A journalist posed a similar question to the Foreign Ministry today, so we'll leave the last word for Hong Lei.

Q: Where can we see those regulations, because we are having some problem in finding which law and regulation was broken.

Hong Lei: I think [I] have answered the relevant question.

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