Australia's Albanese tells China's Li journalist incident 'unacceptable'

By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he had told China's Premier Li Qiang that an incident at parliament house, where Chinese officials tried to obstruct a journalist previously jailed in Beijing, was "unacceptable".

Li's visit to Australia from June 15-18 was the first by a Chinese premier in seven years and marks a stabilisation in ties between the U.S. ally and the world's second-largest economy.

Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who was jailed for three years in Beijing on national security charges until her release in October, was among media covering Li's visit to Canberra on Monday, when Chinese officials stood in front of her to prevent her appearing on camera.

Cheng has said it was likely the Chinese officials did not want her to appear on domestic Chinese news coverage. The incident dominated Australian media coverage of Li's Canberra meeting, and became a focus of political debate on Tuesday.

Albanese said in a radio interview on Tuesday that he had expressed his concern over the incident directly to Li, and it was an example of the differences between China and Australia.

"I raised the incident with Cheng Lei directly with the Premier and told him that, in our view, that was clearly unacceptable, that officials tried to block the camera view," he said.

"We have different political systems, different values, but we need to work those things through," he told radio station 6PR.

Albanese said the actions of the Chinese embassy officials were rude and counterproductive.

"It just drew attention to the fact that Cheng Lei was there. She's a journalist in Australia. She has every right to have been there and to fully participate," he said.

Australia's Foreign Minister Penny Wong told ABC radio the matter was raised with Li because "freedom of the press is very important to Australia".

"The prime minister and I understand the importance of standing up for Cheng Lei, that's why we worked for two years to secure her return home," Wong said.

Australian officials had intervened during the incident on Monday.

China's embassy did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; editing by Miral Fahmy and Bernadette Baum)