Publishers of three U.S. newspapers urged China on Tuesday to reverse the expulsion of an about a dozen of their journalists, calling the move "uniquely damaging and reckless" at a time when the world is sharing the burden of fighting the coronavirus.
China announced on March 18 it was revoking the press accreditations of all American journalists in the China bureaus of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, which were due to expire at the end of 2020.
"We strongly urge the Chinese government to reverse its decision to force the Americans working for our news organizations to leave," the publishers said.
"Perhaps more than any major news event in modern history, this moment underscores the urgent importance of both probing, accurate, on-the-ground reporting from the centers of the pandemic and of sharing the information."
China's foreign ministry had not seen the letter, spokesman Geng Shuang told a daily media briefing on Tuesday, but he defended the expulsions, calling them "necessary countermeasures" that were entirely a response to "unjustifiable oppression" of Chinese media in the U.S.
The expulsions were the latest escalation in a dispute over media freedom and access, which has seen Washington order four Chinese state media outlets to reduce their total staff in the United States to 100 from 160.
The U.S. journalists from the three newspapers have until Friday to hand in their press credentials and halt reporting, but will be able to stay a short period longer. One of them said they had been told they could apply for a temporary visa to stay in the country for 7-10 days.
China and the U.S. are locked in an increasingly bitter rivalry that has extended to the coronavirus outbreak.
Last month, Washington demanded journalists from Chinese state media be registered as staff of diplomatic missions. China then expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters - two Americans and an Australian - after the paper published an opinion column calling China the "real sick man of Asia."
Washington cited a "deepening crackdown" on independent reporting in China as the reason for its decision to reduce the number of Chinese state media journalists in the United States.
China's Foreign Ministry has said its measures are "necessary" and "reciprocal" against "escalating discrimination and oppression against Chinese media" by Washington.
A recent report by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China found that 82% of foreign journalists surveyed said they had experienced interference, harassment or violence while reporting during 2019.