Press Freedom at the Olympics?

Updated on August 1 - China confirms that foreign journalists working out of Olympics press facilities won't have unfettered Internet access, although some sites appear to have been unblocked following international news coverage.

2008-07-30
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ChinaInternetOlympic305.jpg Foreign journalists surf the Internet at the main press center on the Olympic Green in Beijing on July 30, 2008.
Photo: AFP

HONG KONGThousands of foreign journalists based in Beijing during the Olympic Games still have limited access to hundreds of Web sites considered sensitive by the ruling Communist Party, although some key news sites appeared to have been unblocked following widespread coverage in the international media and behind-the-scenes talks between international and Chinese Olympics officials.

The Web sites of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Radio Free Asia and the Chinese language service of the BBC were accessible from within Olympics media facilities, although officials declined to comment on whether the change was official, or if it would last.

The Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called the move "yet another broken promise" Thursday, saying more than 20,000 foreign journalists were affected by the restrictions at Olympics media facilities.

"This situation increases our concern that there will be many cases of censorship during the Games," RSF said in a statement carried on its Web site, which is also inaccessible from China.  "We condemn the International Olympics Commmittee (IOC)’s failure to do anything about this, and we are more than skeptical about its ability to ‘ensure’ that the media are able to report freely."

It quoted Kevin Gosper, head of the IOC's press commission, as saying that IOC officials had accepted the restrictions during negotiations with Chinese officials on the basis that the sites weren't Games-related.

Gosper said the IOC’s key concern was to "ensure that the media are able to report on the Games as they did in previous Games."

News sites blocked

Among the sites found to be blocked by journalists already working out of Olympics press facilities are those of Radio Free Asia, the BBC’s Chinese-language service, the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle, the Hong Kong-based Apple Daily and the Taiwan-based Liberty Times. RSF's own site and that of the Falun Gong spiritual movement were also inaccessible.

The BBC also said an Olympics invitation extended by state-run China Radio International to the head of its Chinese-language service, Lorna Ball, had been withdrawn, just days ahead of the Aug. 8 opening ceremony.

"She was invited to the opening ceremony by China Radio International," BBC World Service spokesman Mike Gardner said. "They never gave a reason. They just withdrew the invitation. It is a strange thing to happen, isn't it, to extend an invitation and to withdraw it, with no explanation."

"We have got no further information as to why this has happened."

Meanwhile, China has also denied a journalist's visa to former synchronized swimming bronze medalist Kendra Zanotto, saying it was "uncomfortable" with her political affiliation, an apparent reference to her involvement in Team Darfur, an athlete group that raises awareness about the crisis in Darfur.

Zanotto had been expecting to work as an expert reporter for the Olympic News Service, an official arm of the Beijing Games.

Suppressed voices

China's Olympic officials, stung by the extent to which political events such as the Tibet unrest in March intruded on its global torch relay in major world cities, seem keen to insure that all the right things are seen, read, and written about China during the Games, according to former Chinese officials and dissidents overseas.

"The main purpose for the Chinese government to host the Olympics is to use the Games to lift up its international image," according to Chen Yonglin, a former top Chinese diplomat who defected to Australia in 2005.

"And the second goal is to get a chance to showcase domestic harmony and stability to the Chinese people, so the people will support the rule of the Chinese Communist Party," he said.

U.S.-based dissident Yang Jianli, released from a Chinese prison just months ago, said that much of the ordinary lives of Chinese people was being suppressed, so that the government can project the image it wants to as it stands in the world spotlight this summer.

"When I was in China I learnt that law enforcement officers banned many street vendor stalls in the name of the Olympics," Yang said. "How can those who were banned still support the Olympics?"

"Why in China are no anti-Olympics voices heard? It is because the government banned them. If the government would only let people to speak out, the world would be surprised by the different views that the Chinese people have on the Games," he said.

Dissidents in jail

"China wants to use this opportunity to showcase for international spectators the new China,  yet the government violates human rights every day, arresting people, detaining petitioners and jailing dissidents," Yang said.

"How do they dare to put China in the international spotlight?"

New York-based Human Rights Watch issued a list of 10 prominent Chinese dissidents who are in jail or under house arrest on the eve of the Games. Many more people including civil rights activists, rights lawyers, migrant workers and petitioners are under tight surveillance, or have been forced to stay out of the capital until mid-September.

Beijing citizen Liu Fengchi’s house was forcibly demolished last year, and he died soon afterwards. His widow said the family had been robbed "under the banner of the Olympics."

"I said to them that we all like the Olympics, but you plunder us in the name of the Olympics, so who will care about such a Games any more?," she said.

"Where are my human rights? There is no such thing in China. The authorities can do anything to you," she said.

According to marketing professor Frank Xie of Philadelphia's Drexel University, the Olympics will still give China the opportunity to address global criticism aimed in its direction.

"The most focused criticism is China’s rights record. So we can urge China to improve its rights record. To reach such a goal, China has to get rid of its ban on organizing political parties, and guarantee press freedom. But these are exactly the things that the Communist Party doesn’t want to do because it can't afford a reckoning with its own people."

Original reporting in Mandarin by CK, Kou Tianli, and Shen Hua. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and Chen Ping. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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