One month before the Olympics, media face huge hurdles

New York, July 8, 2008—One month before the start of the Beijing Olympics, China needs to make enormous progress to ensure the free access it promised journalists when the Games were awarded, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Twenty-six Chinese journalists remain in prison and heavy government censorship remains in place despite Beijing’s broad assurances—made in its 2001 bid to host the event—that journalists would be given “complete freedom” during the Olympics.

Even licensed international broadcasters have doubts about whether they will be able to report freely next month. Hein Verbruggen, a senior International Olympic Committee (IOC) official, acknowledged these anxieties in Beijing today at the opening of the Olympic press and broadcast centers. “Now it is operation time. … We will have to deliver to all stakeholders—including the media, obviously—what was pledged,” he said, according to The Associated Press. But he downplayed concerns in an official press release, saying that “a very small number of open issues remain—such as some matters with broadcasters.” Outstanding media issues will be discussed at an IOC meeting with Beijing organizers tomorrow, AP reported.

At a press conference marking the opening of the media centers, the local Olympic organizing committee’s media head, Sun Weijia, told journalists that live broadcasts would be allowed from the streets of Beijing, including Tiananmen Square, during the Games. Sun’s comments appeared intended to allay concerns that live transmissions could be obstructed. During a question period, Sun denied knowledge of an incident last week in which Chinese police interrupted a live interview by a German broadcaster, according to an official transcript of the press conference. The transcript does not detail the incident, although AP said police had blocked a ZDF interview at the Great Wall.

Sun did not address reports of bureaucratic delays that broadcasters say are hampering their ability to work. Complaints range from access to locales such as Tiananmen Square, to the free movement of satellite truck throughout the city, AP reported.

Sun said that “journalists from home and abroad” would have unfettered Internet access in “all the major [Olympic] sites” to enhance coverage of the Games. He did not say when the access would expire, or address concerns that routinely censored Web sites—such as those that China considers antigovernment—would be inaccessible outside the venues. 

“These are routine issues that should have been dealt with long ago. It’s imperative that they be resolved immediately and in keeping with China’s promises of free and open media for the Games,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “That 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.”

In filing its official bid to host the Games in January 2001, Beijing organizers told the IOC that “there will be no restrictions on journalists” reporting the Olympics. No distinction was made between local and international journalists in this or other public assurances. 

The government eased some restrictions on foreign journalists in January 2007, in regulations that will expire in October this year. But the rules, which apply throughout China, were ignored by government officials when journalists tried to cover unrest in Tibetan areas of western China in March 2008, CPJ research shows.

No liberalization has been extended to Chinese reporters, who are routinely punished for reporting sensitive information on overseas Web sites. Journalist Sun Lin was sentenced to four years in prison on June 26.

CPJ has documented China’s failure to meet its media pledges in the newly updated special report, Falling Short.