China Failing to Deliver on Pre-Olympics Press Freedom Promises According to NGOs’ Reports

China promised foreign journalists more freedom to report this year in the prelude to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, but recent reports issued by human rights organizations Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International conclude that these promises remain largely unfulfilled.

Temporary regulations adopted by the Chinese government, effective Jan. 1, 2007 through Oct. 17, 2008, promised foreign reporters unrestricted travel in China and uncensored Internet access. The regulations, published on the Web site for the Beijing Organizing Committee for the 2008 Olympic Games at http://en.beijing2008.cn/, also indicate that accredited foreign journalists may interview any consenting Chinese organization or citizen. The 2008 Olympic games are scheduled to begin on Aug. 8, 2008 in Beijing.

The Associated Press (AP) reported on Aug. 7, 2007 that when China made its bid to host the games in 2001 it assured the International Olympic Committee that there would be greater media freedom for foreign journalists during the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games.

However, the majority of foreign correspondents continue to be subjected to detention, harassment, and intimidation, according to the August 2007 Human Rights Watch report “You Will Be Harassed and Detained.” Human Rights Watch based its findings in part on anonymous interviews or written accounts from 36 foreign correspondents.

Bruno Philip, a China correspondent for the French daily newspaper Le Monde, was quoted in the report, which is available on the Human Rights Watch Web site, www.hrw.org. “We will always be subjected to harassment by local officials,” Philip said. “The difference now is that we can at least now call a guy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs … but it doesn’t do much for access to information or the capacity to work freely.”

The reports from both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch indicate that the continued crackdown on foreign journalists has taken a variety of forms, from detention of foreign correspondents for short periods of time to surveillance by government and security officials during interviews. The Human Rights Watch report found that foreign coverage of politically sensitive topics, including the activities of political dissidents, China’s HIV/AIDS epidemic in Henan province, and the government’s relationship with Tibet, were more likely to raise the ire of Chinese government officials.

Tim Johnson, China-based correspondent for McClatchy newspapers, wrote on his blog, “China Rises,” of a “dressing down” he received from the Foreign Ministry on May 15, 2007 after a visit to Tibet. The posting, entitled “Scolding an Errant Reporter” details Johnson’s conversation with a senior government official who told him that comments he had made in the article concerning China’s oppressive policy towards the Tibetans were unacceptable to the government. According to the Human Rights Watch report, such reprimands by the Foreign Ministry are not uncommon for foreign correspondents reporting on potentially sensitive issues.

Other journalists have enlisted the Foreign Ministry’s aid in situations where access to sources has been denied, but still have been hindered by local officials in their attempts to report. Philip stated that he was faced with intransigent local officials while reporting on the aftermath of riots in Guangxi province. Despite clearance by the Ministry, which asserted that Philip could talk to anyone, local officials maintained that Philip could talk only to local government representatives, and then failed to direct him to any representatives.

The report also describes the detention of a Beijing-based foreign journalist in early 2007 as she was attempting to report on a murder. The journalist, whose name was withheld in the report, was detained in a facility marked as a military compound and, when she mentioned the new regulations implemented by the Chinese government for foreign journalists, was told by the men who detained her, “Those don’t apply here, go back to Beijing.”

Some journalists, the Human Rights Watch report noted, believed that the temporary regulations had resulted in improved press access to political dissidents like Bao Tong, former Chinese Community Party Central Committee member and secretary to former Party Chief Zhao Ziyang, who is under house arrest for his support of the Tiananmen Square protests in July 1989. However, the report concluded that there was still “widespread disregard and denial” for the provisions of the regulations for improved media freedom.

The AP reported on August 7 that members of the Paris-based free-press advocacy group, Reporters sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders or RSF), had been detained after staging a protest in Beijing on August 6. The RSF protestors accused China of continuing to restrict foreign journalists despite its promises of greater media freedom.

Human Rights Watch recommended at the conclusion of its report that China should extend the temporary regulations indefinitely for foreign journalists and Chinese journalists alike. The temporary regulations are not applicable to Chinese journalists or to Chinese media assistants working with foreign correspondents. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a non-profit organization dedicated to defending press freedom, the treatment meted out to Chinese journalists who report on politically sensitive issues is much harsher, and they continue to face censorship and reprisals for investigative reporting. At least 29 Chinese journalists are currently imprisoned, according to the CPJ in a report published Aug. 7, 2007 on its Web site, www.cpj.org.

Sophie Richardson, Deputy Asia Director for Human Rights Watch, said in a May 31, 2007 article on Human Rights Watch’s Web site that “There is no justification for denying to Chinese journalists even the limited freedoms that their foreign colleagues enjoy. If China is genuine about press freedom for the Olympics, it must also emancipate its own journalists.”

The Chinese government has repeatedly come under fire from human rights groups for failing to address its record of abuses. Amnesty International’s 2007 International Report, a summary of human rights violations in countries around the world, cited China’s record of repression and torture of human rights activists, lawyers, and spiritual and religious groups like the Falun Gong spiritual movement.

Amnesty International’s Secretary-General Irene Khan said in a statement issued Aug. 6, 2007, “As the one year countdown begins, time is running out for the Chinese government to fulfill its promise of promoting human rights as part of the Olympics legacy.”

- Amba Datta, Silha Research Assistant

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