Australia on Friday denied obstructing a probe into two journalists who fled China under consular protection this week, saying its diplomats behaved appropriately.

Responding to Beijing’s claims that the Australian diplomats helped Bill Birtles and Mike Smith “evade China’s investigation”, a top minister pointed out that China had agreed to a deal allowing their departure.

Photo: Wikicommons.

Birtles, a correspondent for national broadcaster ABC, and Smith who worked for the Australian Financial Review, sought refuge in Australian diplomatic missions after being told by police they were wanted for questioning.

The pair left China earlier this week after an agreement was struck between Beijing and Canberra to have them questioned by police before leaving.

“What our embassy officials did was provide appropriate protection to those two journalists, ensuring they could safely leave China,” Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said.

China’s foreign ministry on Thursday claimed Australia’s actions went “well beyond consular protection”, and said it had interfered in “China’s internal affairs and judicial sovereignty”.

Bill Birtles and Michael Smith.

Birmingham insisted that Australia had engaged “appropriately” with Chinese authorities to negotiate a deal that “was respectful of China’s processes but protected the safety of these two Australian journalists”.

The duo’s dramatic flight was the latest flare-up in a protracted squabble between China and Australia over trade, security and responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic. 

Both men had been questioned about another Australian citizen, Cheng Lei, who worked as an anchor for Chinese state TV and was detained on unspecified “national security” grounds for nearly a month.

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