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Last two Australian journalists leave China after 'harassment' by authorities

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In this image made from a video, The Australian Financial Review journalist Michael Smith on his arrival at Sydney airport, Australia Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.
In this image made from a video, The Australian Financial Review journalist Michael Smith on his arrival at Sydney airport, Australia Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.   -   Copyright  Australian Broadcasting Corporation via AP
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The last two journalists working for Australian media in China have left the country after police demanded interviews with them and temporarily blocked their departures.

The absence of Australian media from China comes during a low point in the two countries' relations, and the events that led to the journalists' departures were seen as "disturbing" evidence of an increasing risk to foreign journalists working in China.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Bill Birtles and The Australian Financial Review's Michael Smith landed in Sydney on Tuesday after flying from Shanghai on Monday night, both news outlets reported.

Both journalists had sheltered in Australian diplomatic compounds in recent days.

They left after Australia revealed last week that Australian citizen Cheng Lei, a business news anchor for CGTN, China's English-language state media channel, had been detained.

Both journalists were told they were "persons of interest" in an investigation into Cheng, The Australian Financial Review reported.

Seven uniformed police visited each journalist's home in Beijing and Shanghai at 12:30 a.m. Thursday (1630 GMT Wednesday), the newspaper said.

Birtles said he knew Cheng, "but not especially well," and Smith had met her once in his life.

"I believe the episode was more one of harassment of the remaining Australian journalists rather than a genuine effort to try and get anything useful for that case," Birtles told ABC from his Sydney pandemic quarantine hotel room.

Relations between China and Australia were already strained by Australia outlawing covert interference in politics and banning communications giant Huawei from supplying critical infrastructure.

They have worsened since the Australian government called for an independent inquiry into the origins of and international responses to the coronavirus pandemic.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation via AP
Australian Broadcasting Corp. journalist Bill Birtles speaks to the media on his arrival at Sydney airport, Australia Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.Australian Broadcasting Corporation via AP