At International Olympic Committee headquarters, CPJ raises concerns about press freedom in China

Lausanne, Switzerland, November 15, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists called on the International Olympic Committee today to address the erosion of press freedom in China during the run-up to the Olympic Games in Beijing in August 2008. A CPJ delegation voiced its concerns that Chinese journalists, in particular, will bear the brunt of official retribution after the games are over, and it said that people look to the IOC to take a position on the issue because of the principles of free, open exchange and transparency that the Olympics represent.

CPJ board member Jane Kramer, European correspondent for The New Yorker, and CPJ Senior Research Associate Kristin Jones, meeting today with IOC Olympic Games Executive Director Gilbert Felli and Communications Director Giselle Davies at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, called attention to increasing restrictions on the press in China and urged the IOC to raise concerns with the Chinese government.

The IOC representatives said it is not their policy to comment publicly on their discussions with host countries and that they prefer to work discreetly. But they said “assurances have been made that the media will have access to perform their tasks as journalists reporting on the Games.”

“Our focus has been on ensuring access for accredited foreign journalists going to Beijing to cover the Olympics,” Davies said. All accreditation is handled through the Chinese Olympic Committee, Felli added. The officials said the IOC had not considered the special risks faced by Chinese journalists.

After the meeting, CPJ’s Kramer said: “We are very concerned that once the closing ceremonies are held and international attention fades, Chinese journalists will bear the brunt of official retribution for reporting any news that the government deems unfavorable. It is in the interest of the IOC to hold China to its promise of ensuring that all journalists, Chinese and foreign, are able to cover every aspect of the Games without obstruction or fear of reprisal.”

In their 2001 bid to host the Games in the Chinese capital, Chinese officials gave explicit assurances of complete media access for all journalists in 2008. The CPJ delegation said the IOC has the obligation to raise media concerns with Chinese officials now because of China’s lagging record in meeting those commitments. Instead of the gradual reform needed to achieve those pledges, CPJ research shows that media conditions in China have worsened considerably since 2001. Chinese journalists are at much greater risk of administrative penalties and criminal prosecution as a result of their work.

A Central Propaganda Department order implemented in 2005 has banned journalists from regional news outlets outside of Beijing from reporting on events in the city. Recently proposed restrictions on reporting breaking news will further cripple Chinese journalists’ ability to respond to unpredictable events that could arise during the 2008 Games. Under the new rules, journalists and news outlets would be fined for reporting a disease outbreak, a demonstration, a terrorist attack, or a catastrophic environmental accident before the government issued official announcements. Some form of these rules, stated or implied, may be in place during the 2008 Games, CPJ said.

New regulations announced in September make the official Xinhua News Agency the sole domestic distributor of foreign financial information, news stories, and photographs. The rules, which have yet to be implemented, ban foreign news suppliers from distributing news or information in China that “undermines China’s national unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity” or “endangers China’s national security, reputation and interests.” Foreign governments and news agencies have challenged this plan. CPJ believes the IOC should take a similar path.

In addition to these new regulatory measures, China has continued its policy of jailing journalists. CPJ research shows that at least 31 journalists are now imprisoned in connection with their work. The latest case was the jailing on September 6 of Internet writer and editor Zhang Jianhong. Two days before his arrest on charges of “inciting subversion,” Zhang had posted an essay criticizing China’s human rights record in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics.

Chinese citizens working for domestic and foreign news agencies are at great risk. In August, authorities handed down prison sentences of three years to Zhao Yan, a New York Times researcher, and five years to Ching Cheong, a correspondent for Singapore’s Straits Times. CPJ research shows that both were targeted as a result of their reporting.

“It is not within our mandate to act as an agent for concerned groups,” said Felli, or to bring specific examples of media repression to the table.

“Journalists are imprisoned all over the world, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for bad reasons,” he said. The IOC representatives added that they would consider cases brought to their attention by CPJ, and that they hoped a dialogue between the two organizations would continue.

“It’s important to reverse the trend of intimidation, harassment, and criminal prosecution,” Kramer said. “Addressing these issues now would certainly head off problems in 2008.”