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China expels Al Jazeera correspondent; news channel closes its English bureau in Beijing

Al Jazeera’s English-language channel was forced Tuesday to shutter its bureau in China after authorities here declined to renew credentials for a journalist with a reputation for hard-hitting journalism.

The de facto expulsion of Melissa Chan, reportedly the first such incident in almost 14 years, and Beijing’s refusal to issue a visa for a new correspondent left the channel with no other decision, the Qatar-based satellite news network said in a statement. The network's Arabic-language reporting operations here will not be affected.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said that it was “appalled by the decision of the Chinese government” and described it as the “most extreme example of a recent pattern of using journalist visas in an attempt to censor and intimidate foreign correspondents in China.”

Beijing did not issue any explanation for the move, which comes during a period of heightened government pressure on foreign journalists. The Correspondents’ Club said in a statement that Chinese officials had expressed anger about a documentary aired by Al Jazeera English that Chan did not work on. The documentary in question was apparently one concerning labor camps in China.

The officials also “accused Ms. Chan of violating rules and regulations that they have not specified,” the organization said.

Chan, an American, had been China correspondent for Al Jazeera’s English channel since 2007. During that time, she built a reputation as one of the best Western reporters in the country, filing tough-nosed reports on issues including villagers’ protests against land grabs in the countryside and the operation of illegal “black jails” used to detain petitioners in Beijing.

"Just as China news services cover the world freely we would expect that same freedom in China for any Al Jazeera journalist,” Salah Negm, director of news at Al Jazeera English, said in a statement. “Al Jazeera Media Network will continue to work with the Chinese authorities in order to reopen our Beijing bureau."

The Chinese government had taken the highly unusual step of not renewing Chan’s one-year journalist visa and press credentials at the end of last year, instead giving her a series of short-term visas that ended without renewal at the end of last month. Chan could not be reached for comment on Tuesday morning.

A graduate of Yale University, and board member of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, Chan was recently awarded a 2012-2013 John S. Knight Journalism fellowship at Stanford University.

There’ve been several signals in the past year or so that Beijing intends to tighten its hold on foreign media.

Last week, for example, about a dozen correspondents were summoned by the visa department of the Public Security Bureau in Beijing after reporting on the ongoing plight of blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng. Those reporters had entered the driveway of a hospital where Chen is being held in an attempt to interview U.S. diplomats who’d just arrived.

They were told by the Public Security Bureau that they had violated China’s reporting regulations – which require prior permission from an organization before doing interviews – and told them that their visas would be revoked should they break the rules again.

“We urge China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs to immediately grant Al-Jazeera English correspondents accreditation to report the news in China,” Bob Dietz, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Asia program coordinator, said in a statement issued by the New York-based organization. “The refusal to renew Melissa Chan's credentials marks a real deterioration in China's media environment, and sends a message that international coverage is unwanted.”

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