Publishers of the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal have pleaded with the Chinese government not to expel their reporters, in an open letter published on Tuesday.
Earlier this month at least 13 journalists from the three major US news organisations were ordered to leave China in response to what the government said was “unreasonable oppression” of Chinese journalists in the US.
Tuesday’s letter said media had become “collateral damage in a diplomatic dispute” between the Chinese and US governments, and the expulsion of their journalists came at a critical time as the world responded to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We strongly urge the Chinese government to reverse its decision to force the Americans working for our news organisations to leave the country and, more broadly, to ease the growing crackdown on independent news organisations that preceded this action,” the letter said.
“The media is collateral damage in a diplomatic dispute between the Chinese and US governments, threatening to deprive the world of critical information at a perilous moment.”
Beijing has maintained the expulsion was a response to “politically motivated oppression” in the US government decision to classify Chinese state media organisations as “foreign missions” and apply tighter controls to them.
Three Wall Street Journal reporters had already been expelled, with Chinese authorities saying it was over a “malicious” column printed in the paper, widely seen as racist but which had no involvement from the three reporters.
The news organisations said they would have protested against the expulsions under any circumstances, “but it is uniquely damaging and reckless as the world continues the struggle to control this disease, a struggle that will require the free flow of reliable news and information”.
“The coronavirus pandemic sweeping across borders, sickening and killing people in nearly every country, and sending the world economy into a downward spiral, is a global challenge unlike any other in our lifetimes,” the letter said.
“Perhaps more than any major news event in modern history, this moment underscores the urgent importance of both probing, accurate, on-the-ground reporting from the centers of the pandemic and of sharing the information, insights and lessons that reporting reveals as widely as possible.”
The expulsions sparked fear and condemnation over its implications for press freedom.
The Foreign Correspondents Club of China said: “By expelling journalists and keeping others in a state of visa uncertainty, China is overtly using its powers in an attempt to influence overseas news coverage, by punishing those who publish information authorities see as unfavourable and wish to keep quiet.”
Diplomatic ties between China and the US, which were already damaged by a long-running trade war, disintegrated further in recent weeks as the two governments sought to blame each other for the virus.