Australian Federal Police and ASIO raided two Chinese journalists in June as part of an investigation into foreign interference in Australia.
The previously unpublicised action has come to light via Chinese media reports, in the same week that two Australian reporters fled China amid fears for their security and in a blaze of publicity.
The Global Times, a mouthpiece of the Chinese authorities, said ASIO had questioned the Chinese journalists, seized computers and smartphones, and asked them not to report the incident.
The raids, undertaken under a warrant, were connected to the investigation into allegations of attempted Chinese infiltration of the NSW parliament through the office of NSW Labor state MP Shaoquett Moselmane, and in particular his part-time staffer John Zhang. Both Moselmane and Zhang have denied any wrong doing.
Moselmane is on leave from the parliament and suspended from the ALP.
Part of the investigation was into a group Zhang had on WeChat, a Chinese social media platform, that included the journalists as well as Chinese scholars. The ABC reported on Wednesday that two Chinese scholars on the chat group subsequently had their Australian visas cancelled.
The timing of the raids on the journalists coincided with raids on Moselmane and Zhang.
Asked about the Global Times claim, the Chinese embassy in Canberra said in a statement: “We have provided consular support to Chinese journalists in Australia and made representations with relevant Australian authorities to safeguard legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens.”
Citing a “source” the Global Times said: “Australia flagrantly infringed on the legitimate rights and interests of journalists from Chinese media and institutions in Australia in the name of a possible violation of Australia’s anti-foreign interference law”.
The Chinese have sat on the information about their journalists for more than two months.
This week the ABC’s Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith were rushed out of China after Australian government concern for their security.
Last week multiple Chinese security officials arrived after midnight at the homes of Birtles and Smith, in Beijing and Shanghai respectively. They were told they couldn’t leave the country without answering questions.
The men had been making arrangements to depart, on advice from the Australian foreign affairs department, after Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who worked for China’s English-language state broadcaster CGTN, was recently taken into custody.
The Chinese government says Cheng is suspected of activities endangering China’s national security.
Birtles and Smith contacted Australian officials following the late night visits, and were placed under diplomatic protection, with negotiations undertaken to enable them to return to Australia.
The Chinese made the journalists’ exit conditional on their being interviewed. Smith said the interview included some questions about Cheng whom he had only met once, in passing.
In a full-on attack, the Global Times wrote: “Freedom of the press has become political correctness for Australian authorities. When they spread fake information, smear and attack other countries, they call it ‘freedom of the press’, but when they see information they don’t want to see, they choose to crack down for political purposes, experts said.
“Chinese journalists in Australia strictly comply with Australian laws and have good professional conduct.”
The article said that in the past 20 years, “Australia has passed more than 60 rules restricting ‘press freedom’.
“Australia’s major media outlets launched a joint campaign on October 21, 2019 to protest government restrictions on press freedom, by blacking out copy on front pages.
“Australian authorities have not been satisfied with only extending their black hands to domestic media, and have blatantly raided the residences of Chinese journalists in Australia, regardless of the basic norms of international relations and China-Australia relations, analysts said.
“Analysts said what Australia did was not just driven by Australia’s traditional ideological bias, but also showed that it’s a follower of ‘Uncle Sam’”, the Global Times said.
It also accused Australia of having “hyped” the Cheng case.