Melbourne: Foreign journalists working in Australia will come under the scrutiny of federal agencies if they provide a ‘slanted view’ of the country, interfere with its democracy or steal the intellectual property, a senior minister warned Sunday, amidst a diplomatic standoff with China.
Australian Home Affairs Ministers Peter Dutton said there had been a concerted effort with Australian federal police working with the Department of Foreign Affairs and other government agencies to make sure that the government can address foreign interference wherever it may occur in the country.
“If people are here as journalists and they’re reporting fairly on the news, then that’s fine. And if people are masquerading as journalists or business leaders or whoever they might be, and there’s evidence that they are acting in a contrary to Australian law, then ASIO and AFP and other agencies will act,” Dutton told Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
“If there’s an attempt with interfering or conducting espionage-type activities, then we have a problem with that. But for a journalist coming into our country, applying scrutiny as anybody on your panel would today – we don’t have an issue,” he said.
His comments came days after two Australian journalists flew back home from China after being interrogated by the Chinese officials in a diplomatic standoff.
China has accused Australian consular officials of having “wantonly obstructed and disrupted the normal law enforcement activities” of Chinese authorities when they sheltered journalists Bill Birtles and Mike Smith last week.
Chinese state security services sought to interview the journalists in relation to the case of Cheng Lei, another Australian journalist who was detained in August and is believed to be in one of China’s secretive black jails.
“We’re not going to soft-pedal and ignore that people are breaking the law, or that they’re interfering with our democracy or our system of government or stealing intellectual property. We’re not going to allow that activity to take place and the Prime Minister has been very clear about that,” Dutton said.
On the issue of four Chinese journalists being questioned by Australia’s intelligence agency in June, Dutton said: ”where ASIO has sufficient grounds for the execution of a search warrant, or for activities otherwise, then they’ll undertake that activity.”
He said there was no evidence that actions by the Australian agencies had put the Australian journalists in China at risk.
Dutton also declined to comment on the third Australian journalist Lei held by the Chinese authorities.
“We want to work very closely with the Chinese in relation to that matter, and we’ll continue to do that. But in relation to the two individuals, they’ve got back to Australia safely. That is a good thing and it’s a result of DFAT’s work and I think that there should frankly, only be bouquets of their actions,” he said.
Commenting on the US capping the Chinese journalists allowed in America, Dutton said that the government was looking at what the US was doing, but it was operating by its own system and norms.
“We won’t be influenced otherwise if people are here as journalists and they are reporting fairly on the news then that’s fine, but if they’re here providing a slanted view to a particular community, then we have a concern with that,” he said.
Ties between Australia and China have deteriorated in recent years.
There had been allegations of Chinese interference in Australian society in the past, but relations worsened after Canberra backed an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
Australia’s actions prompted China to impose restrictions on Australian exports such as beef, barley, and wine. China also warned its tourists and students about racism in Australia.