Chinese ambassador pulls out of function in press freedom row

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The Chinese ambassador to Britain cancelled a public event last night after the organisers refused to bar two journalists from a news organisation that has been highly critical of the communist regime.

Zha Peixin pulled out of the event in London at the last minute, disappointing scores of diplomats, analysts and journalists who had been eager to gain an insight into Beijing's thinking at this crucial time.

It is understood the embassy objected to the presence of two reporters from Epoch Times, which has tried to report uncensored news on China since 2000.

Reuters, the media group that organised the event, said it had never kept any diplomats or journalists from similar events and refused to comply with the Chinese demand. The cancellation is a personal frustration for Tom Glocer, Reuters' chief executive, who personally set up the regular event, known as Newsmakers, to promote greater understanding of global issues.

"We are very sorry indeed that tonight's event has been cancelled," a spokesman said. "Reuters is deeply committed to China, where it has had an office since 1871."

Reuters said the embassy had given no specific reasons why it wanted the two individuals barred. It declined to reveal their names.

Mr Zha had been scheduled to give a speech after which he would have taken questions from the audience. Reuters pointed out that the ambassador for Iran, whose president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently denied the existence of the Holocaust, agreed to speak - and answered questions from the Israeli defence attaché.

Ironically, the Chinese move came on the same day that Iran barred CNN, the TV channel, from working in the country after misquoting the president as saying Iran was entitled to "nuclear weapons".

The Chinese-language Epoch Times claims to be the largest Chinese-language newspaper outside mainland China or Taiwan. It launched London and New York editions a couple of years ago.

No one at Epoch Times could be contacted last night. It has published a book, called Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party, which criticises the current regime as a "disaster for the Chinese people".