The European Union on Friday condemned the “harassment” of foreign journalists in China after a BBC correspondent left the country in the face of legal threats and pressure from authorities.

John Sudworth said he had quit China for Taiwan — along with his Irish journalist wife — after a “full-on propaganda attack” from the authorities due to his reporting on Xinjiang rights abuses and the coronavirus pandemic. 

Josep Borrell. File Photo: European Parliament via Flickr/C.C.2.0

“This is the latest case of foreign correspondents being driven out of China as a result of continuous harassment and obstruction to their work, coming on top of the expulsion of at least 18 correspondents last year,” a spokesperson for EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement. 

“The EU has repeatedly expressed its concerns to the Chinese authorities at the undue working restrictions imposed on foreign journalists and reported related harassment.”

“Foreign correspondents play an important role in imparting information across frontiers and contributing to strengthening mutual understanding between the EU and China.”

Press freedom groups say the space for reporters to operate in China is increasingly tightly controlled, with journalists followed on the streets, suffering harassment online and refused visas. 

John Sudworth. Photo: BBC screenshot.

At least 18 foreign correspondents were expelled by China last year, during a tit-for-tat row with the United States that decimated the international press presence in the country.

Chinese state media and officials repeatedly attacked Sudworth for his reporting on alleged forced labour practices targeting Uyghur Muslim minorities in Xinjiang’s cotton industry in particular.

A spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry accused the BBC of spreading “a large number of fake news with strong ideological bias”.

But she denied the government had been behind the move to sue Sudworth and instead admonished him for leaving in a hurry and not clearing his name.

Support press freedom & help us surpass 1,000 monthly Patrons: 100% independent, governed by an ethics code & not-for-profit, Hong Kong Free Press is #PressingOn with impartial, award-winning, frontline coverage.

AFP is a global news agency delivering fast, in-depth coverage of the events shaping our world from wars and conflicts to politics, sports, entertainment and the latest breakthroughs in health, science and technology.