Interview with Deborah Knight, 2GB Afternoons

  • Transcript E&OE
Subjects: Consular support provided to two Australian Journalists from China; Cheng Lei; travel advice to Australians

Deborah Knight: Now, Foreign Minister Marise Payne has just called in with the latest on the Australian journalists who have been evacuated out of China. Minister, thanks for joining us.

Marise Payne: Good afternoon Deb.

Deborah Knight: When were Australian officials first alerted about the safety concerns for these Australian journalists, Bill Birtles and Mike Smith?

Marise Payne: Deb, I think it's fair to say that following the detention of the Australian journalist Cheng Lei from the China Global Television Network, we became concerned about uncertainty that that might pose for other journalists and we have been consulting closely through my department with Australian media organisations with representatives in China. And our advice to media outlets has been consistent with DFAT travel advice of 7 July, which did refer to the risk to Australians. And that is something that, of course, we encourage everybody to read and to monitor.

Deborah Knight: Had you been expecting that these journalists would get this knock on the door from Chinese police, Chinese authorities?

Marise Payne: No, I wouldn't put it like that. It is a matter of taking appropriate precautions. And obviously my department's role is to ensure that Australians, or those who might be vulnerable in such circumstances concerning the detention of a journalist, are appropriately advised. And I'm very grateful for the cooperation received from media organisations with my department and the work that they've been doing together.

Deborah Knight: And quite the operation to get them out. Having to take shelter in Australian diplomatic areas, then having to agree to be interviewed to lift the travel ban on them coming home from Australia- coming home to Australia. How tense were the negotiations to get them out?

Marise Payne: Well, there have been a number of processes which officials have undertaken – our first priority being to assure the safety and security of the individuals concerned. And as you say, we felt it was best that they be able to stay with Australian officials in Australian premises while a number of these matters were addressed. That includes both the interviews with authorities and the restriction on their travel. Having done that, and having done that I think very well from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's perspective, we were then able to ensure that they were able to leave Beijing.

Deborah Knight: Now, China's Deputy Ambassador, when he spoke to the National Press Club a couple of weeks ago, he spoke about the need for respect and mutual understanding. There's not much respect or mutual understanding taking place from China is there?

Marise Payne: Well this is a very disappointing series of events and I am also very disappointed that we, of course, don't have a- the major media organisations currently represented, or disrupted rather, in their ability to report from China, as many of us who have travelled to China in recent years can attest. Australian journalists in China don't cut their political representatives any slack, they always ask us the hard questions as well. And that's part of their job. But importantly, we will continue to work in a bilateral sense, guided by our national interest. We will deal with individual issues as they arise, as we have done here.

Deborah Knight: So effectively it means that, for the first time I think since the 1970s, we've got no Australian journalists working on the ground in China for an Australian media organisation and they're our biggest trading partner. I mean, this is a serious issue in terms of coverage and basic reporting.

Marise Payne: Yes, it is and Australia, of course, is a strong advocate of freedom of the press, freedom of the media. And I have reaffirmed that in this discussion, of course. And we will work appropriately with media organisations to determine next steps on this.

Deborah Knight: Now, the police in China told both Bill Birtles and Mike Smith that they were persons of interest in the Cheng Lei case and that was why they wanted to be interviewed. They had to agree to be questioned for an hour before that ban on them leaving China was lifted. What's the latest in the case of Cheng Lei? Have you been told why she's been detained yet?

Marise Payne: Deb, I'm not going to get into the details of that matter. We would not usually comment on those but I can advise that we did have an opportunity to have a consular visit at the detention centre where Ms Cheng Lei is held. That was held by video, but that is more to do with COVID-safe practices than anything else. And so our consular officials at the level of the Ambassador have been in direct contact with her and we will continue to seek advice from Chinese authorities for the reasons for her detention and the progress on her case.

Deborah Knight: Is that the same video link that you told us about last week? Has there only been one?

Marise Payne: One visit so far, yes. Which is what we would expect under our bilateral consular agreement.

Deborah Knight: And the advice for Australians in China, as it stands, is don't go.

Marise Payne: That's correct. Our Smartraveller advice is very clear and our Smartraveller advice, updated on 7 July, also notes the risk of foreigners being detained because of aspects- because of suggestions they might be endangering national security – that is a quote – and that they may be at risk of arbitrary detention. So, I can't emphasise enough the importance of – no matter where you are really but in this case, in the subject we are discussing – paying attention, having regard to the Smartraveller advice which we update regularly through our website process.

Deborah Knight: And what about for the many Australians who live and work in Hong Kong? Does that advice stand for them there too?

Marise Payne: Well they should certainly be, of course, paying very close attention to the Smartraveller advice. We have raised our concerns in relation to Hong Kong on a number of occasions and particularly the rights of Hong Kong citizens to engage in peaceful protest, which is something Australia supports and particularly that Australian citizens pay careful heed to the Smartraveller advice if they are in Hong Kong as well.

Deborah Knight: And just finally, have you been able to make direct contact with your Beijing counterparts since we spoke last week?

Marise Payne: No, we both participated in the G20 Foreign Ministers Virtual Meeting one evening late last week and that is, as I would expect it to be, these are important engagements and I look forward to continuing those the way of the world currently is, virtual meetings.

Deborah Knight: Alright Marise Payne, we thank you for your time.

Marise Payne: Thanks very much, Deb.

Deborah Knight: Foreign Minister Marise Payne there with the latest on the Australian journalists who've been pulled out, bundled out in a top secret operation to evacuate them from China. A surprise move; they're now in hotel quarantine after landing safely in Sydney this morning.


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