Covering the Beijing Games? Expect to Be Censored

Bob Dietz
Published in The Huffington Post
June 10, 2008

Despite China’s initial openness to reporters in the days and weeks following the devastating earthquake in Sichuan province, anyone who thinks China is going to be warm and friendly towards the media during the August Olympics should do a reality check. In the last few days about six foreign reporters were hauled away from a demonstration of angry mothers, demanding answers to why their children had died in what appears to have been poorly constructed schools. Foreigners say they are beginning to have a hard time getting permission to travel to the affected areas, and there has been a change in attitude on the part of local authorities.

Back in 2001, when China beat out four other cities to host the Games, the Chinese specifically promised that “there will be no restrictions on journalists in reporting on the Olympic Games.” There were plenty of skeptics at the time, but there was also reason to expect some significant improvement. Chinese leaders, under then president Jiang Zemin, looked like they were moving toward freeing up media, and incoming President Hu Jintao had a reputation as being slightly more liberal than Jiang. Coupled with the rapid commercialization of the media that had been going on for more than a decade, a freer media in China by the time the Games rolled around looked like a possibility, though admittedly a long shot.

The bet didn’t pay off — Chinese media is arguably more restricted now than it was when China was awarded the Games and it is not realistic to expect that to change before August 8, when the Games start. China is still the world’s largest jailer of journalists — 26 behind bars as of today. But even more significant is the increasingly sophisticated censorship and content control system that has evolved. Mainstream Chinese reporters and their editors know just how far to push stories. And to make sure they don’t go too far, they are at the receiving end of a daily, sometimes hourly, stream of directives from the Central Propaganda Department — that’s its name translated from the Chinese. In English the government calls it the Central Publicity Department.

Except for the main government-controlled newspaper and TV stations, Chinese media are competitive — they need viewers and readers and advertisers to survive just as their Western counterparts do. Initial coverage of the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan is a great example of that. Chinese and foreign reporters descended on the scene in the same way Hurricane Katrina was covered here, and the reporting was so energetic and firsthand that censors were unable to keep up with the flow of information. For weeks they were outstripped by reporters’ zeal. As the dust has settled and the inevitable political recriminations of shoddy construction and corruption and favoritism in aid distribution have become part of the story, the censors have reasserted their grip.

It is easy to see why: The anger of grieving mothers can easily grow into expressions of dissatisfaction with other government policies. China’s economy has been growing at phenomenal rates for decades, and the social disruption that comes with such growth making the transition from a rural life to a free market, particularly in the country side makes places like Sichuan a tinderbox of social unrest.

In Tibet and adjoining regions in March, censors were under no illusions about what had to be done: Beijing clamped down on all coverage of the demonstrations and subsequent ethnic rioting, shut down virtually all access for foreign reporters and allowed all media to only use reporting for the official Xinhua (New China) News Agency.

So what should foreign reporters expect when they go to cover the Games? When sensitive stories arise — Falun Gong demonstrations, angry AIDS sufferers calling for recognition in Tiananmen Square, pro-democracy activists sitting in front of a Western embassy, pro-Tibetan demonstrators unfurling banners whenever they see a western camera crew on the street — reporters can expect to be met with a hostile security response. Foreign reporters say the experience of being hauled away and detained usually lasts for a few hours and hardly ever turns physical. Recommended responses vary from being combative, calling your embassy and making a stink, to just rolling with the situation and being polite, shrugging it off and getting back to the job.

Last year CPJ published a reporter’s guide and China backgrounder called Falling Short. We released an update version yesterday. The report expresses our greater concern: While we don’t want to sound blasé, we are not as concerned with foreign journalists’ safety as much as the safety of the people they interview and the young Chinese staff they will hire to act as assistants, fixers, translators and runners. Many will be young and enthusiastic, and not as knowing of the way the media game is played by Chinese journalists, who have learned to protect themselves and not to jeopardize their sources.

Given that the International Olympic Committee has been reluctant to pressure the government in any significant way, the reality is that China has not and shows no intention of meeting its 2001 promises of freeing up local or foreign media. The government has made a commitment to carrying off a perfect Olympic Games, and the pattern in the past for such high-profile events is for the government to clamp down hard to ensure that things go smoothly. The 25,000 or so journalists expected in Beijing should resign themselves to pretty much being on their own in covering an economically vibrant country saddled with an authoritarian government.

Bob Dietz is the Asia Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists,