Beijing claimed Wednesday that Australia’s intelligence agency questioned foreign correspondents working for Chinese state-run media, seizing computers and mobile phones in raids apparently linked to a billowing spy scandal.
The accusation, the latest scrap in a diplomatic falling-out that spans security, trade and media freedoms, follows an investigation by Beijing into Australian journalists based in China.
The last two foreign correspondents working for Australian media in China fled Monday, while another — Cheng Lei, who worked as an anchor for Chinese state TV — is being detained under “national security” laws.
On Wednesday a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs added a new layer to the intrigue, saying Australia-based journalists from Xinhua, China News Service and the China Media group were the target of Australian intelligence raids in late June.
Four journalists were “interrogated… on the grounds of a possible breach of Australia’s anti-foreign interference laws”, Zhao Lijian told reporters.
They were questioned and had their phones, computers and even their children’s tablets confiscated.
“I would like to stress that the journalists of the Chinese media in Australia have strictly observed local laws and regulations,” he said.
Australia’s actions “seriously interferes with the normal reporting duties of the Chinese media… and causes serious damage to the physical and mental health of the journalists and their families.”
The Australian intelligence activity is alleged to have taken place on June 26 and involved four journalists working in Australia.
ASIO, Australia’s main intelligence agency, refused to confirm or deny the raids, while the Australian Federal Police said it had “no comment to make” on the matter.
Media and court documents show Australian intelligence and police officers raided the home and office of New South Wales state legislator Shaoquett Moselmane that day as part of a months-long investigation into covert Chinese influence campaigns in Australia.
The timing of the allegations against Australian intelligence coincided with a furore over the treatment of two Australian correspondents in China, Bill Birtles and Michael Smith.
After midnight visits to their homes by Chinese police last week, the pair secretly fled to diplomatic compounds in Beijing and Shanghai.
They were allowed to leave the country only after days of diplomatic wrangling and an agreement that they would undergo questioning before departure.
Both men were quizzed about fellow Australian Cheng Lei, who has been detained in China since last month.
Their case has been seen another blow to press freedom in China and emblematic of rapidly deteriorating relations between Beijing and Canberra.