China Pressured to Lift Blocks on Media Center Internet Service
Journalists and free press advocates criticized organizers of the 2008 Beijing Olympics when it became apparent a few days before the games were set to begin that some Web sites were blocked on the Internet service provided to members of the media. Organizers later allowed better access.
On July 28, The Wall Street Journal reported that more than a dozen Web sites were inaccessible via Internet connections provided at the Olympics Main Press Center, including those for Amnesty International, as well as the Web sites of accredited media organizations Apple Daily – Hong Kong’s second-largest circulation newspaper – and the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC)’s Chinese language service. The Guardian of London reported July 30 that any Web site with the word Tibet in the site’s URL address was also blocked.
The Guardian reported that Kevan Gosper, Chairman of the International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s Press Commission, said the only uncensored Web sites that journalists at the event would have access to were those related to “Olympic competitions.” The Guardian said this contradicted China’s promise to grant the international media “complete freedom to report” at the games.
The Guardian reported that in April, Gosper said the IOC received assurances from Chinese officials that web censorship would be lifted for journalists during the games. On July 30 Gosper said the IOC had only negotiated free access to sites about the games.
“My preoccupation and responsibility is to ensure that the games competitions are reported openly to the world,” Gosper said. “The regulatory changes we negotiated with [the Beijing Olympic Games organizing committee], and which required Chinese legislative changes were to do with reporting on the games. This didn’t necessarily extend to free access and reporting on everything that relates to China.”
But by August 2, the restrictions had been lifted on some Web sites and the IOC had released statements that countered Gosper’s earlier remarks.
The New York Times reported August 2 that IOC officials said they had urged the Beijing organizing committee to lift the restrictions in a meeting on July 31, and an IOC spokeswoman said the IOC has always been adamant about unfettered Internet access for the 20,000 foreign journalists covering the games, blaming Gosper’s earlier comments to the contrary on a misunderstanding. According to The Times, by August 1, journalists could access the previously blocked sites of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Radio Free Asia, and the BBC’s Chinese language service, as well as sites that discussed Taiwanese independence, jailed Chinese dissidents, and the 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square. Meanwhile, other sites, particularly those that mention banned spiritual movement Falun Gong, remained off limits. Although journalists will have relatively free access to the Internet, it is still tightly controlled for the rest of the country.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the problem became apparent when a Wall Street Journal reporter showed his laptop to Olympic organizing committee Media Director Sun Weijia at a July 28 press conference at the Media Center, demonstrating that some Web sites were blocked. The Sydney Morning Herald also reported that reporters claimed Internet speeds were “10 times slower than at the Sydney Olympic Games eight years ago.”
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Sun initially argued that the Internet service had no problems, but after “a large gathering of Western media” expressed the same complaint, he allowed: “I will look into it and get back to you.”
China enacted temporary regulations in effect Jan. 1, 2007 through Oct. 17, 2008, promising foreign reporters unrestricted travel in China and uncensored Internet access, and stating that accredited foreign journalists may interview any consenting Chinese organization or citizen. Human rights groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders or RSF) have criticized the Chinese Government for not adhering to the new regulations. (See “China: Prelude to Olympics and Crisis in Tibet Elicit Criticism and Nationalism” in the Spring 2008 Silha Bulletin and “China Failing to Deliver on Pre-Olympics Press Freedom Promises According to NGOs’ Reports” in the Fall 2007 issue.)
According to The Australian on August 1, Gosper, who is also a former Australian Olympian, said high-level IOC officials had struck a secret deal with Chinese Olympic organizing officials to reverse course and censor the Internet for journalists, contrary to continuing public announcements that China would not do so. “It has dented my reputation quite seriously,” Gosper said. “People take me at my word, so I expect the information I am giving to be consistent.”
Reporters “Manhandled” by Beijing Police
On July 25, reporters were “pushed, jostled and manhandled” by Beijing police while covering a chaotic scene as tens of thousands of sports fans broke down barriers and fought to grab the last batch of Olympic tickets, according to Hong Kong newspaper the South China Morning Post.
The Morning Post reported that scuffles broke out as police tried to contain reporters and photographers in official media zones. One television reporter was pushed to the ground and shoved in the throat, the Morning Post reported, and photographers were pulled from stools and ladders they were standing on to shoot the scene.
According to the Morning Post, one of its photographers was detained for six hours. Official news service Xinhua reported that the photographer had allegedly broken through a temporary barricade, disobeyed police orders, and kicked an officer in the groin.
The Financial Times of London reported that video of the mishap was played on Hong Kong television stations, a public relations embarrassment for Chinese Olympic officials.
Hong Kong journalist groups decried the event. According to the Morning Post, The Hong Kong Journalists Association said it was shocked by the violent interference with journalists’ reporting activities, and The Hong Kong News Executives’ Association “strongly condemned” the police action.
Vincent Brossel, spokesman for international press freedom group Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF or Reporters without Borders) said “Seeing a journalist being punched while doing his job is quite scary and shows the organizers are not prepared, and we can expect more clashes,” according to a July 26 story from the Morning Post.
Broadcast Access Questions Come Down to the Wire
According to The Associated Press (AP) on July 23, many of the details for how, where, and when broadcasters could do their work covering the Beijing Olympics were still being resolved at the last minute.
The AP reported that both rights-holding broadcasters, like NBC, who have paid for coverage of the Olympic venues, as well as non-rights holders who can cover athletes and stories away from the venues but not inside them, have faced red tape, intimidation, and restrictions on coverage, making it difficult to predict whether they will be able to cover unexpected events away from the venues, like protests.
The New York Times reported July 24 that authorities announced that they would set aside space in three city parks as protest zones, but demonstrators would still need to first obtain permits from the local police and abide by Chinese laws that usually make it nearly impossible to legally picket over politically charged issues.
One broadcaster, who the AP said asked not to be identified for fear of having permits rescinded, said broadcasters have to tell authorities “everywhere we want to be in August, and what time. … We have to provide a list of the guests who will be interviewed and the content of the interview.”
The AP reported broadcasters have been promised six hours of limited live coverage daily from Tiananmen Square, though interviews are banned. Helicopter shots of the start of the marathon in Tiananmen Square have also been banned. Chinese organizers have also promised free movement of satellite trucks around the city, the AP reported. However, Sandy MacIntyre, director of news for the Associated Press Television Network, said he received a notice from Chinese authorities saying the broadcaster would have to give 24- or 72-hour notice to move a satellite truck around Beijing, according to the July 23 AP story.
“There shouldn’t be any notice at all needed to go live,” MacIntyre told the AP, adding, “All of these rules should never have come down to the wire like this.
– Patrick File
Silha Fellow and Bulletin Editor