- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2008

When the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2008 Summer Games to Beijing in July 2001, a crucial factor in the winning bid was a promise by China’s communist leadership to let the world’s media hordes do their job when they came to cover the athletes.

Wang Wei, secretary-general of the Beijing Olympic Games Committee, told the IOC at the time that international journalists would have “complete freedom to report when they come to China.”

Temporary regulations approved through October explicitly allow foreign journalists to conduct interviews with any willing Chinese organization or individual, not only on the sporting events but on “political, economic, social and cultural matters of China … in conformity with Chinese laws and organizations.”

But with the official opening of the Games less than three weeks away, human rights activists and regime critics say the reality has fallen far short of the promises.

Foreign reporters and producers are likely to find significant restraints on their activities if they try to report on such sensitive topics as Tibet or democracy, according to Phelim Kine, a former journalist and now the top China researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

“A deal’s a deal, and the Chinese are not holding up their end,” Mr. Kine said last week in a briefing for a small group of reporters in Washington. “We have documented already hundreds of violations [of the temporary regulations]. The level of aggression has gone up; the level of tolerance has been reduced significantly ahead of the opening of the Games.”

The outbreak of anti-government clashes in Tibet in March and demonstrations over aspects of the central government’s response to devastating earthquakes two months later have only increased official sensitivity about press coverage, Mr. Kine said.

The New York Times reported last week that Chinese journalists have been warned not to report on rallies organized by parents of children killed when their schools collapsed during the quake and to refrain even from visiting the site of the ruined schools.

With an estimated 25,000 journalists expected to be in China for at least a part of the Olympics, Chinese officials are taking pains to deny any plans to restrict or control coverage.

Olympics spokesman Guo Weimin told a Beijing press conference Thursday that the temporary regulations remained in force, as well as the more liberal rules on interviews.

The organizing committee and government ministries were offering “as much assistance as possible” to foreign media organizations, he said, and more than 400 applications for television transmissions and satellite news-gathering equipment have been approved.

“Generally, we have received favorable feedback from the foreign media,” he said.

A delegation of Chinese officials and scholars dealing with Tibet also took issue with reports that the remote province had become a no-go zone for international reporters since the March riots.

Wang Pijun, secretary-general of the Chinese State Council’s information office, said in a briefing arranged by the Chinese Embassy in Washington that the government had approved a string of authorized visits to the region since March, from organizations that included Reuters and Japan’s Kyoto News service, as well as Russian, Italian and Hong Kong-based reporters.

But Mr. Wang said the government had found in some cases that the visiting journalists were participating in the Tibetan protests.

“As long as you come to hear genuine ideas and to see the development, benefits and living standards of the people in Tibet, the Chinese government and local authorities will welcome you,” he said, speaking through an interpreter.

But Human Rights Watch’s Mr. Kine, in a survey of China’s media record prior to the Olympics, said the government was using a variety of tactics to suppress sensitive stories.

Among them: delaying or denying accreditation and visa requests for news organizations that publish “unflattering” stories; increased use of plainclothes security agents to trail journalists; and harassing Chinese citizens who cooperate with foreign reporters, often by charging them with breaking national security laws.

Mr. Kine said Chinese authorities have gotten more “creative” in limiting press coverage. China-based foreign correspondents say the government will often seal off sensitive sites with yellow police tape, preventing reporters from inspecting a “crime scene.”

The Human Rights Watch researcher said some foreign reporters say that “garden-variety harassment” has eased since the temporary regulations were put in place. China also won international praise for the relative openness with which it allowed foreign reporters to cover the immediate aftermath of the May earthquakes.

But Mr. Kine sharply disputed the idea that Beijing was allowing anything other than tightly controlled foreign access to Tibet and said, in general, his research found that the Olympics had not brought the media thaw that its Chinese sponsors had promised.

“Since mid-2007, the situation appears to have worsened,” his report found. “Many foreign correspondents we spoke with say they continue to face serious obstacles whenever the issues on which they wish to report are deemed ‘sensitive.’ The ongoing closure of Tibet to foreign journalists offers the starkest illustration of this point.”

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