Canberra (Australia): China has formally arrested a Chinese-born Australian journalist for CGTN, the English-language channel of China Central Television, on suspicion of illegally supplying state secrets overseas, Australia’s foreign minister said Monday. The arrest of Cheng Lei last Friday starts an official criminal investigation and came six months after she was detained.
“The Australian government has raised its serious concerns about Ms Cheng’s detention regularly at senior levels, including about her welfare and conditions of detention,” Foreign Minister Marise Payne said Monday. “We expect basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment to be met, in accordance with international norms,” she added.
China’s Foreign Ministry confirmed Cheng’s arrest and said her legal rights were being ‘fully guaranteed’.
“We hope that Australia will earnestly respect China’s judicial sovereignty and refrain from interfering in China’s law-based handling of cases in any way,” ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a daily briefing.
The charges, which could result a penalty of life in prison or even death, are highly unusual for an employee of a media outlet tightly controlled by China’s ruling Communist Party.
The British media watchdog Ofcom last week stripped CGTN of its UK Broadcasting license because of a lack of editorial control. Ofcom is investigating complaints that it ran forced confessions by suspects involved in political cases.
Worsening bilateral relations since Australia called for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic are suspected to be the cause of Cheng’s arrest.
Cheng’s two children, aged nine and 11, are living with their grandmother in Melbourne, Australia, the journalist’s niece, Louisa Wen, said. “I feel like the children don’t fully understand the situation, so it’s probably quite tough on the kids wondering what’s going on,” Wen said. “Every time we do something fun, we’re thinking of her and how she can’t enjoy these things with us,” Louisa added.
Geoff Raby, chief executive of a Beijing-based business advisory company, said Cheng has been his friend since he was Australia’s ambassador to China for four years ending in 2011.
“She knows how the system operates. She’s very, very knowledgeable and experienced and I just find this whole episode quite astounding,” Raby told Australian Broadcasting Corp.
A month before Cheng was detained August 13, Australia warned its citizens of a risk of arbitrary detention in China.
Before the last two journalists working for Australian media in China left the country in September, they were questioned by Chinese authorities about Cheng. ‘Australian Broadcasting Corp’ reporter Bill Birtles and ‘The Australian Financial Review’s’ Michael Smith were told they were ‘persons of interest’ in an investigation into Cheng.
Australia has criticized China for charging Chinese-Australian spy novelist Yang Hengjun with espionage. He has been detained since January 2019.
Cheng was an anchor for CGTN’s ‘BizAsia’ programme. She was born in China and worked in finance in Australia before returning to China and starting a career in journalism with CCTV in Beijing in 2003.