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BBC correspondent ‘forced to leave’ China after smear campaigns: FCCC

BBC Radio Outside Broadcasts. (Amanda Slater/Flickr)
April 04, 2021

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The BBC’s China correspondent John Sudworth has been forced to leave the country amid threats to his personal safety in a move likely linked to his reporting on human rights abuses in Xinjiang, a group representing foreign journalists in the country said on Wednesday.

“John Sudworth, the BBC’s award-winning China correspondent for the last nine years, left mainland China at short notice on March 23 amid concerns for his safety and that of his family,” the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) said in a statement.

It said Sudworth had left “after months of personal attacks and disinformation” about him from officials and in state media, which is under the control of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The BBC said Sudworth had now relocated to the democratic island of Taiwan.

“John’s work has exposed truths that the Chinese authorities did not want the world to know,” the BBC Press Office said via its Twitter account.

“The BBC is proud of John’s award-winning reporting during his time in Beijing, and he remains our China correspondent.”

Sudworth’s departure came after the Chinese foreign ministry denounced a BBC report on forced labor linked to mass detention camps for Uyghurs and other ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang, and on state-run disinformation campaigns.

“Your organization has a strong ideological bias when it comes to reporting on China,” the ministry said in a March 19 statement on its website. “It has repeatedly speculated on Xinjiang-related, pandemic-related, and Hong Kong-related information, and even fabricated fake news.”

It said the BBC had continued to “smear and attack China” on Xinjiang, press freedom, and state-led disinformation campaigns, despite repeated diplomatic protests.

Sudworth’s departure also came after two years of uncertainty caused by Beijing’s refusal to give him a residence permit, restricting him instead to a series of short-term visas, the FCCC said.

“This appeared to be in retaliation for his coverage of Xinjiang, the Covid-19 pandemic and other issues that Chinese foreign ministry officials repeatedly said had crossed ‘red lines’,” the FCCC said via its Twitter account.

Sudworth’s wife Yvonne Murray, who is the China correspondent for Irish broadcaster RTE, left with him, it said.

Others also forced out

Sudworth isn’t the first foreign correspondent to be harassed and intimidated into leaving China.

In September 2020, two Australian media organizations recalled their correspondents from China amid the threat of arrest and a travel ban.

Bill Birtles of the Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC) and Michael Smith of the Australian Financial Review fled the country after sheltering for a few days in Australian diplomatic compounds.

Their hasty departure came after Chinese police detained Australian national and state-media anchor Cheng Lei pending an investigation in which Smith and Birtles were named “persons of interest.”

“Abuse of Sudworth and his colleagues at the BBC form part of a larger pattern of harassment and intimidation that obstructs the work of foreign correspondents in China and exposes their Chinese news assistants to growing pressure,” the FCCC said.

It said journalists are increasingly seen as fair game for retaliation or to step up pressure on other countries amid diplomatic disputes.

Sudworth’s departure came weeks after U.K. broadcasting regulator Ofcom revoked the license of Chinese state broadcaster CGTN after finding that it had violated British broadcast rules.

China effectively expelled at least 18 foreign correspondents last year, according to the FCCC.

“We urge China to live up to its stated commitment to facilitate unhindered reporting in China … [and call] for an end to dangerous, personal attacks on individual reporters and foreign media outlets,” it said.