09 July 2008

Covering the Olympics in China: The Difference Between Press Convenience and Press Freedom

VOA correspondent Stephanie Ho in Beijing reports that with one month to go before the Olympics, China is reaffirming its promises of complete media freedom during the games. But these assurances come at a time when foreign journalists working in Beijing are reporting continued harassment and interference.

The problem could be that China is confusing media convenience with press freedom.

Ms. Ho quotes Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Beijing Olympics organizing committee, as telling reporters China takes media service seriously and as asserting China has honored its commitment, in his words, to “adopt all kinds of measures to provide every convenience for journalists.”

The International Olympic Committee's Hein Verbruggen seems pleased. He is already thanking the Beijing organizing committee, but for what?

Here is what he says about the organizers: “They have made great efforts to provide excellent services for the press, such as providing all that is virtually needed for the media to make this their home for several weeks, from hair dressers, gyms, restaurants, to even a massage center.”

Massage center!!! That’s great. But again we ask, what about press freedom?

Listen to Johannes Hano, from the German broadcaster ZDF:

“We were stopped by security guards last week, on the Great Wall, and we had all the permissions we needed. They stopped us. We had a rehearsal before and nobody interfered. But when we started the live (shot), when we were on air, then they stopped us, running to the camera, putting their hands on the camera.”

Hano is quoted as saying he does not care as much about the working facilities as he does about having the ability to report freely. He said he is worried that, despite Chinese promises, media freedom will be seriously curtailed.

His concerns have been echoed by the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, which has recorded 259 cases of reporting interference since January 1st, 2007. That is the date the new, more open, rules for Olympic reporting went into effect.

In a statement this week, FCCC president Jonathan Watts said:
“The Chinese government has not yet lived up to its Olympic promise of complete reporting freedom and there are mixed signals about its willingness to do so. In the run up to the Games, we have seen steps forward towards greater openness and at the same time backward to tighter controls. The government should show which way it intends to go by making access and transparency an enduring legacy of the Olympics.”

Human Rights Watch has also issued its own report accusing Chinese authorities of continuing to block and threaten foreign journalists despite promises to lift media restrictions ahead of the Olympics.

Its 71-page report, “China’s Forbidden Zones: Shutting the Media out of Tibet and Other ‘Sensitive’ Stories,” documents how foreign correspondents continue to face intimidation and obstruction by government officials or their proxies when they pursue stories that can embarrass the authorities, expose official wrongdoing, or document social unrest. It says some journalists have suffered serious threats to their lives or safety. And it reports China is also threatening to restrict entry to news organizations that do not toe the line.

“These constraints limit what the estimated 25,000 correspondents going to China for the Olympics can cover,” says Sophie Richardson, Asia Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch. “Journalists who try to report objectively on the complex realities of modern China are facing real risks, despite the government’s commitments to give them greater freedom.”

Reporters Without Borders also weighed in recently on the same subject. It asserts “There has been no improvement in the situation of free expression in recent months and arrests are continuing at the same pace.”

And the Committee to Protect Journalists, in a statement of its own this week, notes Chinese journalists are suffering, too. CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said: “We remain dismayed by the repressive conditions under which our Chinese colleagues continue to work. The censorship, imprisonment, and harassment of domestic journalists are the fundamental issues that should be resolved.”

Seems there may be a problem here that can’t be massaged away.

1 comment:

Stephen Kaufman said...

Hi Alex,

I really enjoy reading your blog and we seem to be interested in many of the same journalism issues. I wanted to offer a link to one of my recent posts about Human Rights Watch's "survival guide" for reporters covering the 2008 Olympics in case you & your readers find it interesting.