China Al Jazeera Journalist

HONG KONG (CNN) -- The international broadcaster Al Jazeera said it had closed its English-language bureau in Beijing after the Chinese authorities refused to renew the press credentials of its correspondent in the country, Melissa Chan.

The broadcaster expressed disappointment with the decision, which it said came after repeated attempts to apply for a visa through the normal procedures.

It said it had no choice but to close the bureau because China had also denied its requests for a correspondent to replace Chan.

"We are committed to our coverage of China," Salah Negm, director of news at Al Jazeera English, said in an article on the broadcaster's website. "Al Jazeera Media Network will continue to work with the Chinese authorities in order to reopen our Beijing bureau."

Al Jazeera's Arabic-language bureau in Beijing will continue to operate normally, said Ezzat Sabe Shahour, the bureau chief.

At a Ministry of Foreign Affairs press conference Tuesday, spokesman Hong Lei said China welcomed objective reporting from foreign journalists, describing the reporting environment as "very open and free."

"At the same time," he said, "foreign journalists should abide by Chinese laws and regulations while reporting in China and follow the professional ethics."

He added: "We have been dealing with relevant media and foreign journalists in accordance with relevant laws and regulations as well as the actual performance of the journalist."

Chan, a U.S. citizen, is thought to be the first accredited foreign correspondent to lose the right to report in China since the expulsion of Yukihisa Nakatsu, a reporter for Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, in October 1998.

The Chinese authorities are yet to comment on the reasons for Chan's visa denial.

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (FCCC) suggested it was related to the airing of an Al Jazeera documentary last November on forced labor camps in China.

In a statement on its website Tuesday, the FCCC -- of which Chan is a board member -- referred to Chinese "anger" over the report, which it said Chan "didn't even play a part in making."

The report was part of a documentary series called "Slavery: A 21st Century Evil," which accused China of "state-sponsored" slavery by forcing prison inmates to work.

The Chinese authorities "have also expressed unhappiness with the general editorial content on Al Jazeera English and accused Ms. Chan of violating rules and regulations that they have not specified," the FCCC said.

During her five years at Al Jazeera's Beijing bureau, Chan has filed nearly 400 reports on a variety of subjects including the economy, domestic politics, foreign policy, the environment, social justice, labor rights and human rights, the broadcaster said.

In one report in 2010, Chan was blocked by authorities as she tried to visit the wife of jailed Chinese Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo. The following year she profiled artist Zhang Bingjian who was painting thousands of portraits of corrupt Chinese officials. And as recently as March this year, Chan accompanied an angry family as they tried to find relatives they claimed had been "disappeared" and detained at China's so-called "black jails."

The FCCC said it was "appalled" by the decision to block Chan's visa application, which it called "the most extreme example of a recent pattern of using journalist visas in an attempt to censor and intimidate foreign correspondents in China."

There is no suggestion the decision to deny Chan a visa is related to recent reporting on the scandal engulfing the former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, or the attempts by the blind activist Chen Guangcheng to leave the country.

Chan confirmed on Twitter that she no longer had reporting rights in China, saying "Yes my press credentials have been revoked and I will no longer report f/ China."

Chan declined to comment further when phoned by CNN.

Al Jazeera's China bureau is one of 60 operating worldwide as part of its English-language network which opened in 2006, according to the broadcaster's website.

The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) urged China to "immediately grant" a visa to Al-Jazeera English correspondents, adding that the refusal to approve Chan's application "marks a real deterioration in China's media environment."

"Surveillance and harassment are the norm for reporters on the China beat, and authorities will often delay visa approval or threaten to revoke it as part of an overall strategy of intimidation. But effectively shuttering an international news outlet is a disturbing development," Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia program coordinator, said in a statement on the organization's website.

According to the Information Department of China's Foreign Ministry, 649 accredited journalists were working in China, as of February 2012. Most were based in Beijing, filing reports for 423 news organization from 58 countries.

Citing its own survey and additional research, the FCCC said in the past two years, 27 foreign reporters were made to wait for more than four months for visa approvals, with 13 of those of waiting six months or more.

It claimed that 28 permanent postings or reporting trips had been canceled since 2009 because the Chinese authorities had rejected or ignored applications for the relevant visas.

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