China Fails To Make Olympic Podium On Media Freedom

Aug 23, 2008

As the Beijing Olympics draws to a close, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China urges the government to move decisively to make media openness a legacy of the Games.

Despite welcome progress in terms of accessibility and the number of press conferences within the Olympic facilities, the FCCC has been alarmed at the use of violence, intimidation and harassment outside.

The club has confirmed more than 30 cases* of reporting interference since the formal opening of the Olympic media center on July 25th, and is in the process of checking at least 20 other reported incidents. The host government has not lived up to its Olympic promise that the media will be completely free to report on all aspects of China.

The most disturbing trend was the rise in cases of police roughing up or beating reporters and breaking their cameras. Altogether, we have heard of 10 such cases in the past month, more than for the whole of last year. The total number of reporting interference incidents between January 1 and August 20 is 152, just short of the figure for all of 2007.

There have been areas of progress: Officials inside the Olympic zone, as well as at the government-organized Beijing International Media Center, have been available for comment. Some formerly restricted websites have been unblocked. According to temporary Olympic regulations, journalists are free to travel and interview anyone who is willing. Police have been instructed not to put their hands over cameras or to interrupt interviews. One Free Tibet press conference in Beijing was held without interference by police (though coverage of several earlier actions resulted in friction).

But much needs to be done. The Olympic reporting rules are temporary and have not been fully implemented. Many areas of China, particularly Tibet, remain off-limits to reporters. Sources are still harassed or imprisoned for talking to foreign journalists. Reporters are often followed or stopped when they visit sensitive areas. Many internet sites and radio stations remain blocked. Despite vague reassurances from the authorities that there will be no step backwards, it remains unclear whether the government will re-block websites and re-impose travel restrictions on reporters after the Olympics. The FCCC urges the authorities to make these easings permanent.

“The Chinese government failed to make the Olympic podium on media freedom,” said Jonathan Watts, FCCC president. “But there is a basis to build on. Violence against journalists must end immediately and the authorities should take more steps towards transparency and openness. The legacy of the Games can still be a positive one.”

“Reporting interference” includes violence, destruction of journalistic materials, detention, harassment of sources and staff,
interception of communications, denial of access to public areas, being questioned in an intimidating manner by authorities, being
reprimanded officially, being followed, and being subjected to other obstacles not in keeping with international practices.
When groups of reporters from different media organizations travel together, and experience the same violation, we count one violation per news organization.