China's expulsion of an American reporter working for the pan-Arab news network Al-Jazeera has drawn criticism from other journalists and the United States, and in turn a particularly tight-lipped reaction from Beijing.
Melissa Chan is the first accredited foreign journalist to be expelled from China since 1998. The move, made public on Tuesday by Al-Jazeera, is seen as China's latest attempt to punish international media whose reports the authoritarian government dislikes and sees as besmirching its global image.
The expulsion "seems to be taking China's anti-media policies to a new level," Bob Dietz, the Asia coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement.
Chan was Al-Jazeera's only English-language reporter in China, and the Qatar-based network said in a statement that it had to close its English-language service's bureau because her press credentials and visa were not extended.
Chan is a US citizen who worked for the network in China for five years. She had reported extensively on sensitive topics such as illegal seizures of farmland and the imprisonment of petitioners from the countryside in unofficial "black jails."
Fourteen of the 18 questions posed at the foreign ministry's regular briefing on Tuesday concerned Chan, but spokesman Hong Lei would not discuss her status, saying only that journalists must follow China's laws and regulations. All the questions about Chan were missing from the official transcript later posted on the ministry's website, in keeping with Beijing's occasional practice of ignoring sensitive questions.
An official at the ministry's news office said she was unaware of gaps in the transcript and asked for a faxed list of questions about it. Though widely reported in international media and condemned by government's and professional groups, Chan's expulsion hasn't been mentioned in Chinese state media.
The US state department said it had followed Chan's case closely and was disappointed in the Chinese government's decision not to renew her accreditation.
"To our knowledge, she operated and reported in accordance with Chinese law, including regulations that permit foreign journalists to operate freely in China," spokesman Mark Toner told a news briefing in Washington.
Al-Jazeera said no permission to replace Chan was given and its requests for additional visas for correspondents had gone unanswered. The expulsion does not impact Al-Jazeera's Arabic-language service, which maintains several accredited journalists in its Beijing bureau.
Foreign reporters in China often experience harassment, surveillance and visa problems when government officials are angry at their reports. Over the weekend, police called in about a dozen foreign reporters, threatening to revoke their visas for allegedly breaking rules in reporting the case of blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng by entering the parking lot of the hospital where he is receiving medical care.
Al-Jazeera did not say if any reason was given for expelling Chan, who was not among the journalists called in.
The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China said Chinese officials accused Chan of unspecified violations and were unhappy with some of Al-Jazeera's coverage, particularly a documentary that Chan had not been involved in. The documentary, which aired in November, was about China's system of sentencing minor criminals and political prisoners to labor camp prisons.
The club issued a statement Tuesday saying it was "appalled by the decision of the Chinese government to take this action."
Al-Jazeera reported extensively on last year's Arab Spring anti-government uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere â€” events that profoundly spooked the Communist Party leadership. After calls were posted online for similar protests in China, Beijing responded with a harsh crackdown on media, lawyers, writers and government critics. The director of news at Al-Jazeera English, Salah Negm, defended Chan and the network's coverage.
"We constantly cover the voice of the voiceless and sometimes that calls for tough news coverage from anywhere in world. We hope China appreciates the integrity of our news coverage and our journalism," Negm said in the network's statement.
A German reporter and a Japanese reporter were the last foreign journalists expelled from China, in late 1998.
Chan has left China and will be returning to California, where she will be taking up a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University.