IRISH journalist, Yvonne Murray, has had to flee China with her children over sinister threats to her husband.
s Murray, an RTÉ journalist, is married to John Sudworth who is Beijing Correspondent for the BBC.
The couple left China to move to Taiwan following after what was described as constant surveillance of Mr Sudworth by Chinese police, threats of legal action, official obstruction and increasing levels of intimidation.
Mr Sudworth has won numerous awards for his coverage of various controversial issues in China including the treatment of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang and cotton produced by forced labour.
His coverage sparked a major backlash by the Chinese authorities who were furious at such issues being highlighted.
China also hit out at major western firms including Nike and H&M over the cotton issue.
Ms Murray and Mr Sudworth decided to leave for Taiwan amid concern for their three young children.
“We left in a hurry last week and it was really because the pressure and threats from the Chinese Government became too much,” she told RTÉ’s News At One.
“This has been going on for some time. The authorities in Beijing took issue with my husband’s reporting – he works for the BBC and he has reported extensively on the incarceration of the Uyghurs as well as the origins of the virus in China.
“This was something they took great issue with. They started trying to hinder his reporting about three years ago by putting him on shortened visas for three months or one month rather than for the full 12 months that other journalists were getting.
“Then when the BBC continued to report on stories that the Government didn’t like, they continued to ratchet up the pressure – with co-ordinated personalised attacks by State media and then legal threats.
“It is worth noting there is no way for us as foreign correspondents to counter-act those kind of campaigns in China. Foreign news outlets are blocked here.
“We put up with this for a very long time but in the end we couldn’t justify raising a young family in that kind of atmosphere.
“In a way, to confirm that it had become intolerable, on the morning of our departure there were actually plain clothes police outside our home watching us and our children load our suitcases into a taxi.
“Then we were followed all the way to the airport, watched by the secret police in the check-in area – this was very frightening for the children and it definitely confirmed to us we were making the right decision.”
The couple are now in Taiwan and intend to continue to work from there.
“We are now in Taipei – holed up in a quarantine hotel for 14 days. There is very strict quarantine in Taiwan. Then we plan to continue to report on China and the wider region from here.
“There are already some foreign correspondents based in Taipei now following a round of expulsions from mainland China last year, mainly US journalists.
“But there are others who left China during the pandemic and are trying to get back in but China has cancelled the journalists’ visas and they cannot get back in and are staying in Taipei.
“Our experience here speaks to the wider situation in China for foreign journalists – conditions have deteriorated rapidly in recent years. The space for reporting in the country is ever shrinking as is the pool of foreign correspondents there.
“There are very few US journalists left and no Australian journalists. Now, because I have gone, there are no Irish journalists left.”
Ms Murray has worked in China for almost a decade.
“It has been very tough to leave – it has been a very long time, nearly a decade. Two of our three children were born in China and they all speak fluent Chinese. For them, it is home and it was particularly distressing for them facing the reality that they might never be able to go back to the place where they were born so long as the Chinese state is so determined to target and punish journalists for simply doing their job.
“The Chinese Government tells us that our reporting suggests that we hate China – that is not the case. We would not have stayed so long if we did not like China – it is an extraordinarily colourful, vibrant and culturally rich country.
“In terms of the memories and the friendships we forged with Chinese people over the years, they cannot be taken from us. As the secret police followed us as we left, it is a sad memory but it cannot erase all the other happy memories we have from China.”
The BBC insisted it was very proud of Mr Sudworth and his reporting and confirmed he remains its China correspondent.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said the authorities had not been given prior notice.
“Only in recent days when we were faced with the task of renewing Sudworth’s press card did we learn that Sudworth left without saying goodbye. After he left the country, he didn’t by any means inform the relevant departments nor provide any reason why,” Hua Chunying told a news conference in Beijing.
The BBC said: “John’s reporting has exposed truths the Chinese authorities did not want the world to know.”
Last year China expelled correspondents for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, among others.
And in September 2020, the last two reporters working in China for Australian media flew home after a five-day diplomatic standoff.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) of China says foreign journalists are “being caught up in diplomatic rows out of their control”.
“Abuse of Sudworth and his colleagues at the BBC forms part of a larger pattern of harassment and intimidation that obstructs the work of foreign correspondents in China and exposes their Chinese news assistants to growing pressure,” the FCC warned on Twitter.