China, IOC backtrack on Olympic Internet access

New York, July 30, 2008–The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply disappointed by the International Olympic Committee’s admission that China would not provide open Internet access at the Main Press Center in Beijing despite earlier assurances to the contrary. Kevan Gosper, chairman of the IOC’s press commission, said today that the organization had entered into an agreement that allows the Chinese government to block access to Web sites of the government’s choosing, according to several international news reports.

“Having just met with IOC President Jacques Rogge to discuss press freedom at the Olympic Games, I am disheartened by reports today that China not only never intended to provide unfettered access to the Internet, but that senior IOC officials were complicit in this arrangement,” CPJ Chairman Paul Steiger said today. “These reports reflect a major setback. The IOC must address this very disturbing issue promptly and publicly.”

Numerous international news organizations, including Reuters and The Associated Press, quoted Gosper today as saying that he had learned IOC officials had negotiated with the Chinese to allow some sites to be blocked. The negotiations and the ensuing agreement were not disclosed publicly until journalists discovered this week that certain Web sites were being blocked inside the press center. For instance, reporters seeking to cover an Amnesty International report critical of China’s human rights record found they could not access the organization’s site. The Web sites of numerous other human rights organizations are also affected.

“There is cause for anger here, cause for resentment, but mostly cause for sadness and bewilderment that the IOC would sign away such a basic promise as unrestricted Internet access in the Olympic press center,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “The IOC has not been able to ensure that the Beijing Games would honor the Olympic principles of transparency.”

IOC Communications Director Giselle Davies did not immediately return a message left by CPJ seeking clarification and explanation for today’s development. The IOC Press Commission, which is headed by the Australian Gosper, “is responsible for advising organizing committees for the Olympic Games on the provision of the best possible working conditions for the world’s written and photographic press,” according to the IOC’s Web site.

In a story published Monday, The Wall Street Journal cited an April interview with Rogge in which he said he had been assured by Beijing that there “will be absolutely no censorship on the Internet” for accredited journalists. Chinese officials sought to today to recast such Olympic promises. One spokesman, Sun Weide, said the Beijing organizers pledged only “sufficient, convenient Internet access.”

China promised “no restrictions on journalists in reporting on the Olympic Games” in its official bid to host the 2008 Games–a pledge reiterated by Wang Wei, a vice president of the Beijing organizing committee, the day before the IOC named Beijing as host city. The IOC confirmed the promise in its evaluation of competing cities’ bids, saying that “it was confirmed to the Commission that there will be no restrictions on media reporting.”

Since winning the bid, Chinese officials have failed to make good on their media pledge, and the IOC has done little to hold them accountable, CPJ found in its June special report, Falling Short . One of the few tangible changes–a loosening of travel and interview restrictions on foreign journalists–was widely ignored by government officials during Tibetan ethnic unrest in March, CPJ found.