Buzzfeed’s China bureau chief Megha Rajagopalan has been forced to leave China after her journalism visa application was denied by the authorities without explanation.
Rajagopalan had been covering Asia since 2012 and has reported extensively on the crackdown in Xinjiang, a western region of China populated by Muslim Uyghurs.
“It is bittersweet to leave Beijing after spending six wonderful and eye-opening years as a journalist there… Can’t express how grateful I am to have lived in China through a period of incredible economic dynamism & social change. Living there forced me to learn not only a new language & culture, but an entirely new way of seeing the world. It’s been endlessly challenging and rewarding,” she tweeted.
Her article “This is what a 21st-century police state really looks like” gave focus to surveillance technology deployed in the region, winning recognition at the 2018 Human Rights Press Awards. The acclaimed feature reported that facial recognition cameras and fingerprint scanning technologies were being used to monitor civilians in a growing police state.
See also: NGOs note ‘staggering’ rise in arrests as China cracks down on minorities in Muslim region
Cédric Alviani, director of journalism watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) East Asia, told HKFP that China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs should reverse its decision: “Harassing foreign journalists and then posing as a victim when they publish annoying reports will not help the Chinese government to improve its image… Such behaviour is all the more shocking because the regime does its best to exploit the freedom available to journalists in democratic countries in order to develop its propaganda network there.”
Citing a Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) survey last year, Alviani added: “Using the threat of non-renewal of their press visas, the classic method of pressuring foreign reporters, is on the rise. Fifteen percent of the respondents said they had been threatened, three times as many as last year. Six percent said they had been directly threatened with expulsion, a percentage that has also tripled.”
Rajagopalan confirmed the news with HKFP after the FCCC tweeted about her visa refusal on Wednesday.
In a statement, the club’s Press Freedom Committee said Rajagopalan had conducted herself to the highest journalistic standards whilst in the country. It condemned the authorities for failing to give a clear reason for the visa denial: “We find this extremely regrettable and unacceptable for a government that repeatedly insists it welcomes foreign media to cover the country.”
Rajagopalan said on Twitter that she will now report on human rights and technology from the Middle East, but will continue to cover Xinjiang.
The Chinese authorities have conducted large-scale arrests of ethnic minorities in the region since 2014, when President Xi Jinping enacted “strike hard” government campaigns to tackle unrest. NGO Chinese Human Rights Defenders found in a report released last month that one in five arrests in China last year took place in the Xinjiang region, despite the region containing only 1.5 per cent of the country’s population.
Beijing has previously expelled or denied visas to foreign journalists after they produced work critical of the government. Al-Jazeera’s Melissa Chan was forced to leave the country in 2012, after her press credentials were not renewed by authorities.
L’Obs reporter Ursula Gauthier was expelled in 2015 after writing an article about Chinese leaders’ response to the Paris attacks that year.
Swedish journalist Jojje Olsson was also barred from entering China last year using visa restrictions. He previously told HKFP that the decision was made after he criticised China for its reporting restrictions in an article published by the Swedish newspaper Expressen last June.
Fellow journalists and human rights figures voiced their support for Rajagopalan and paid tribute to her work on Twitter after the news emerged.
congrats Megha, and good luck, your work in China was amazing and you’ll carry that forward into new areas while connecting back to the old, despite the de facto #explusion — which merely leaves a negative impression of China in the reporter #selfdefeating
— Didi Kirsten Tatlow (@dktatlow) August 22, 2018
“We know @meghara will be formidable whatever the beat—and that one never really leaves #China behind!,” tweeted Sophie Richardson, China Director at NGO Human Rights Watch.
“The world depends on journalist[s] like you for illuminating a China that, in some ways, is increasingly closed off from the world,” tweeted Adam Ni of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.
China ranked 176 out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index, making it one of the most restrictive countries for foreign journalists to work in.
HKFP has contacted Buzzfeed for comment.
Additional reporting: Tom Grundy.