China: Olympics organizers must ensure media freedom

New York, September 22, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on China and the International Olympic Committee to address concerns about press freedom when they brief the international media next week on preparations for the 2008 Beijing games.
CPJ is troubled by new policies restricting the flow of information in China and the government’s continued jailing of journalists.

The most recent case was the September 6 jailing of Internet writer and former Aegean Sea Web site editor Zhang Jianhong two days after he slammed China’s human rights record in the context of its hosting the Olympic Games. Zhang is accused of “inciting subversion,” and faces a possible prison sentence of several years. In the last article he posted online, Zhang warned of an “Olympicsgate” resulting from China’s treatment of its citizens, including its muzzling of the press, ahead of the Games.

China and the IOC will hold a four-day briefing from September 25 in Beijing for international media organizations covering the Games.

The briefing comes shortly after China announced two new restrictive measures. In June, it proposed fines of up to the equivalent of US$12,500 for journalists, foreign or domestic, who report “sudden events” such as riots, disease outbreaks, or natural disasters without government authorization. The proposal represents an attempt to subject foreign news agencies to the same official censorship faced by Chinese news agencies, and if implemented could curb the ability of reporters to cover unforeseen events during the Games.

Another measure, imposed September 10, names the official Xinhua News Agency as the distributing agent of all news and information by foreign news agencies in China and names several categories of banned material. While the distribution of news by foreign agencies in mainland China is already tightly controlled, the new regulations seem intended to extend the government’s control over the distribution of economic and financial news and other information to clients within China. The new measure highlights China’s intention to keep a check on the flow of information within the country.

“China is clearly on a course of restricting all media in the country, local and international,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Even if the restrictions are suspended during the Games, the government appears unwilling to safeguard the freedoms of journalists reporting on the run-up to the event or those who will remain behind after the closing ceremony.

“We are extremely skeptical of the broad promises of media freedom made by China, and urge the IOC to take a hard look at the host government’s promises in the light of the current crackdown,” Simon said.

In addition to the new measures, China has continued its policy of jailing journalists and political essayists. Chinese citizens working for domestic and foreign news agencies are at great risk. In August, authorities handed down sentences of three and five years, respectively, to New York Times researcher Zhao Yan and Singapore’s Straits Times correspondent Ching Cheong. If Ching serves his full sentence in Beijing, he will still be jailed there at the start of the Olympics in August 2008.

Giselle Davies, Communications Director for the International Olympics Committee, told CPJ that she was confident that journalists would be able to work as freely in Beijing as they did in Athens and Sydney.

“It is not for us to comment on rules and regulations in place today, since we’ve had assurances that for Games time, what is necessary for journalists to do their jobs will be in place,” Davies said.