French journalist forced to leave China after article on Xinjiang

By Sui-Lee Wee BEIJING (Reuters) - A French journalist has been forced to leave China after the government said it would not renew her press credentials for the new year in response to a critical report on Beijing's policies in the troubled western region of Xinjiang. The departure of Ursula Gauthier, a reporter for the French current affairs magazine L'Obs, marked the first time in more than three years that a journalist has been forced to leave China due to a refusal by authorities to renew accreditation. China's foreign ministry said on Saturday that Gauthier could no longer work in China because she did not make a public apology for an article she wrote on Nov. 18. Hours after President Xi Jinping told his French counterpart, Francois Hollande, that China stood by France in the wake of the Paris attacks in November, the article said, China's public security ministry announced the capture of suspects over a coal mine attack in September in Xinjiang. "Beautiful solidarity, but not entirely free of ulterior motives," Gauthier wrote in her article. On Nov. 20, the government announced that security forces in Xinjiang had killed 28 "terrorists" from a group that carried out a deadly attack at a coal mine in September under the direction of "foreign extremists". The government has given no details of the composition of the group. Reuters has not been able to independently verify that the suspects were Muslim Uighurs, or if they had a role in the mine attack due to tight government reporting restrictions in Xinjiang. Hundreds of people have died in unrest in Xinjiang, home to the Uighurs, and other parts of China over the past three years. On Saturday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Gauthier's article "openly supports terrorist activity, the killing of innocents and has outraged the Chinese public". Gauthier said the government's decision meant that she had to leave Beijing on a 1 a.m. flight on Friday to Paris. When asked whether Gauthier would be allowed to return to China, Lu told reporters on Thursday it was "up to her". He did not elaborate. The European Union, in a statement released by its mission in Beijing, urged China to review its decision. "The EU supports the principles of freedom of expression and independence of the media as underpinning every free society," it said. Gauthier, who has been based in China for six years, said she met foreign ministry officials three times starting in late November after the state-run Global Times published a commentary criticising the article she had written on China's policy in Xinjiang in the wake of attacks in Paris. "DEATH THREATS" Gauthier, who said she had received death threats after her report, told Reuters she had told the foreign ministry that the Global Times had distorted the meaning of her article. "They wanted me to apologise publicly for my wrongs," Gauthier said. "But I said my wrongs were all invented by the Global Times. I cannot apologise for crimes I did not commit." When asked to confirm the meetings, Lu said the ministry did not want to "publicise the situation". He noted that Gauthier did not call the police. "This is not that usual, unless she's got other considerations," he said at a briefing. Gauthier said she did not report the death threats as she "did not expect the police to take the case seriously". The Global Times declined to comment when contacted by Reuters. France's ambassador to China, Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, has raised Gauthier's case with China's foreign ministry, said a spokeswoman for the French embassy in Beijing. China requires all foreign journalists to renew their accreditation annually. In May 2012, Melissa Chan, a reporter for Al Jazeera's English language channel in Beijing, was forced to leave after authorities refused to renew her press credentials over unspecified alleged violations of regulations - the first such case in 13 years at the time. (Additional reporting by Joseph Campbell and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie, Robert Birsel)

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