CHINA: Playing ‘Not Nice’ With Al Jazeera

How did a journalist wind up in the headline herself?

Al Jazeera’s Beijing correspondent Melissa Chan has become the first foreign journalist to be expelled from China in 14 years. In her recent interview with the LA Times, Chan stated that she is ‘not exactly sure what prompted her expulsion after five years of reporting in China.’ It is speculated that Chan’s extensive coverage on negative stories in China such as illegal farmland seizure by local government and secretive ‘black jails’ made Chinese authorities resentful. Regardless of the specifics, however, Al Jazeera consequently closed its Beijing bureau due to the incident.

According to a Foreign Ministry spokesman in Beijing on last Tuesday, Chan allegedly violated “relevant laws,” though the spokesman failed to reference the specific laws that Chan allegedly broke. We may never get a straight answer from any spokesperson about the matter, but the message from China is clear: journalists had better not cross the thin red line that the government has drawn.

On one hand, Chan and Al Jazeera English might be victims of the increasingly tight political environment brewing in China this year. After all, Chan has been reporting on the “dark side” of China for the past five years. Only this year was she forced to renew her visa monthly instead of receiving the usual one-year visa like most other foreign correspondents in China get. Since Chan’s stories are generally still covering the same material, the only explanation for her expulsion is diminishing tolerance from the Chinese government.

This incident has brought to light an important question: when journalists are put in Chan’s shoes, should they do what Chan did (keep reporting stories and eventually pay for it), or should they instead “lay low” in order to keep their position intact? China’s decision garnered much criticism from both the media and the public, but in the end, the government achieved what they wanted: one less unwanted journalist publishing taboo topics.

Al Jazeera has subsequently received the proverbial short end of the stick, no longer possessing an office in China, nor having another opportunity in the foreseeable future. For the foreign journalists that hope to remain in China, perhaps it is time to learn to walk the thin line drawn by the “relevant department” and study the “relevant laws.”

On a brighter note, Chan no longer has to worry about treading the boundaries of Chinese politics while breathing in polluted air. Instead, she will be residing in Palo Alto as a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford. — by staffer Sean Zhang


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