- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2008

BEIJING | Broadcasters and the IOC are pushing China to keep its promises and open up Tiananmen Square to more hours of live coverage for the Beijing Olympics.

Unfettered access to Tiananmen, site of a bloody crackdown on the 1989 democracy movement, is being used to gauge how far China’s communist government will go in granting press freedom, which it promised seven years ago to help win the Olympic bid.

In an emergency meeting last week in Beijing with the International Olympic Committee and broadcasters, Chinese officials - after months of hedging and leaving the critical question unanswered - decided live broadcasting from Tiananmen would be limited to two time slots - 6-10 a.m. and 9-11 p.m.

Chinese officials also finally agreed to give hundreds of satellite trucks freedom to roam around the city and report, but a list of restricted areas is expected this week. And there are reports broadcasters will have to get permission 24 hours before filming from a location.

This comes after promises of open coverage, which was followed months ago by a reported ban on any live coverage.

“We have the words. It’s in writing as well. We will just have to wait and see,” said Tomoyo Igaya, senior program director for Japan’s NHK Sports and head of the Japan consortium, an Olympic pool that represents NHK and five Japanese commercial broadcasters. “People say yes, yes, yes, but will people on site be saying no, no, no?”

With 3 1/2 weeks go before the games open Aug. 8, China’s authoritarian government wants the Olympics to showcase the country’s three decades to speedy economic progress. But the government fears the games could be a stage for activists set on embarrassing China over policies in Tibet and Darfur, religious and political freedom or the jailing of dissidents.

To avoid that scenario, China has cracked down on visas and security and thrown countless roadblocks in broadcasters’ way.

“Chinese officials are aware that for a lot of the world, Tiananmen Square brings back memories of June 4 [1989] and what in the West is sometimes known as the Tiananmen Massacre - or the Tiananmen incident,” said Susan Brownell, a visiting China expert from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

“Plus, you have Chairman Mao’s [Zedong] portrait in Tiananmen, and I think that’s a past they don’t want in the foreground.”

But that iconic square is exactly what every broadcaster, rights holder or not, wants to beam around the world - no matter what time of day.

“Why can’t we broadcast freely during the day?” asked Fernando Pardo, head of sports for the European Broadcasting Union, who attended the meeting. “Why don’t we have a normal timetable as was promised in the beginning? The Chinese didn’t give a clear answer, only excuses.”

Last week’s decision leaves European broadcasters without a time slot for delivering live coverage from Tiananmen to the all-important evening news audience. China is six hours ahead of most of Europe and seven hours ahead of Britain.

“Both slots are totally useless for us,” Pardo said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Not so for rights-holder NBC, which has paid millions to air the games. The early morning time slot on Tiananmen suits the American network, which will be able to go live to its prime-time audience. Beijing organizers and the IOC also moved swimming and gymnastics finals to the morning, giving NBC live evening coverage back home.

Even so, NBC, like the other broadcasters, wants more.

A broadcast official who attended Wednesday’s meeting and declined to speak publicly said Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics, warned the Chinese that limiting time from Tiananmen could set a bad precedent in regard to press freedom.

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