Marise Payne: I can confirm the provision of consular assistance to ensure the safe return of two Australian journalists today. I want to acknowledge the excellent work, particularly of the officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to support them, and to calmly resolve the issue so that the journalists were able to leave in a calm and sensible manner. I also want to note that Australia is, of course, a strong supporter of media freedom — freedom of the press — and that it is disappointing that after many years, Australia will not have a media organisation present in China, for some period of time. Can I say to all, please, observe the advice that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade provides on Smartraveller. On 7 July, we changed our advice in relation to China to refer to the risk of arbitrary detention based on national security grounds. These are difficult issues to deal with, and Smartraveller provides a strong source and resource for Australians overseas, whether they are working or travelling.
Journalist: Minister, what alarmed you about Beijing's conduct? Especially in the last week with that initial slapping of an exit ban on Birtles and Smith.
Marise Payne: Well, we had seen of course the detention of Australian journalist Ms Cheng Lei, and that had raised concerns for Australia. My department had been speaking with media organisations. We briefed the media organisations and they of course make their own decisions in relation to those matters.
Journalist: Was that detention what prompted that pre-emptive warning to the ABC last week?
Marise Payne: That was certainly part of our discussions, yes.
Journalist: What else prompted that?
Marise Payne: Well, I wouldn't go into any further detail on those sorts of issues, but to say that to be prudent and to be careful and to protect Australians in international environments, we always engage with significant employers on subjects of often a sensitive nature; this would be one of those.
Journalist: Do you believe these journalists were targeted because they are Australians?
Marise Payne: I can't comment on that, these are matters which will be pursued by Chinese authorities. Most importantly, we’ve been able to ensure that they are home, and that has been able to be effected quickly.
Journalist: Does China's action warrant some kind of diplomatic rebuke from the Australian Government?
Marise Payne: Well, Australia will always operate in our national interests based on our values. It is disappointing that we will not have, as I said, representatives of Australian media organisations on the ground in China, and I hope that that is able to be revised in a timely way.
Journalist: What avenues are open to Australia in that respect?
Marise Payne: Well, we are in regular engagement with Chinese authorities. Our embassy has I think worked very hard, very diligently in the past few days to ensure that we were able to support safely the two journalists in question. We will continue to do that and we will continue to work with key Chinese authorities on these issues.
Journalist: What form would any sort of further response take and when could we expect to see it?
Marise Payne: Well, I'm not going to speculate about those sorts of things, and in fact, that is not how Australia operates. Australia operates according to law and in our national interests.
Journalist: Isn't it a fundamental issue that goes towards the issue of respect in a bilateral relationship?
Marise Payne: We will raise any issues that we have appropriately with our counterparts in China, and with authorities in China, as we always do in a respectful and considered and calm way.
Journalist: What is your advice to Australian citizens working for foreign media organisations in China? There are at least two of them. Should they leave now?
Marise Payne: My advice is that they should read Smartraveller, that they should use Smartraveller as a resource, and that they should raise any concerns they may have through the appropriate mechanisms with officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Journalist: If you were in their position and you read Smartraveller today, would you be leaving?
Marise Payne: Smartraveller says: do not travel.
Journalist: Should Australia seek to revoke journalist visas of Chinese state-owned media working here?
Marise Payne: That is not how Australia operates. Australia operates according to law and in our national interests. And unless individuals are breaching laws in Australia, then that would not be an approach we would take. At this point, that is our consistent view.
Journalist: What do Beijing’s actions say about its willingness to adhere to general international norms, including a degree of media freedom?
Marise Payne: That is a matter indeed for the system in China. Australia and China are different countries with different systems of government, and different approaches. And I respect the systems and the legal environment which operates in China, and in fact, you will find in the Smartraveller advice that we encourage travelling Australians to always understand the law as it applies in the countries in which they find themselves, and that includes particularly now, at a time of great complexity across the word, complexity of travel, complexity of international engagement. The challenges that COVID-19 has exacerbated, I would encourage every Australian who is overseas to be very careful about abiding by the rules of the country in which they find themselves.
Journalist: Does the implementation of some of those laws in China undermine the bilateral relationship between Australia and China?
Marise Payne: Our relationship is founded on many decades of important bilateral engagement, and it is a relationship founded on mutual respect with a comprehensive strategic partnership, which has been in operation for a number of years. It is a very important relationship to Australia. I think the relationship with China is an important one to them as well. We will continue to operate on that basis and to work, as I said, through appropriate mechanisms in a respectful and considered way.
Journalist: Do these actions stray from that previous mutual respect?
Marise Payne: I’m not going to engage in a running commentary on that. I would say that we worked carefully, closely with Chinese authorities to ensure that we were able to bring, in a considered and calm way, those Australians back here.
Journalist: The ABC has said it hopes to reopen its bureau operations in Beijing at some time; what do you assess the preconditions will have to be, for that to be safe?
Marise Payne: I think that would be speculative and I think we would always work with media organisations and business, as we always do, in locations around the world, on conditions in local environments. But importantly, we have been able to ensure that these matters were resolved swiftly and effectively, and that the two journalists concerned are safely here in Australia.
Journalist: Of the remaining Australian citizens in China, who else is most at risk of arbitrary detention which is what the travel advisory warns of, now that journalists are no longer there?
Marise Payne: Well, I don’t think it’s helpful to speculate on those sorts of issues. What I would say is that I have a strong consular focus on Australians who find themselves detained in China. That includes matters which are currently before the Chinese legal system. I’m very conscious of that and we will continue to do our best to provide them with appropriate consular support.