Olympics: Domestic media story needs to be covered

With the opening of the Beijing Games tonight, there is plenty being written about China’s emergence on the world stage and its assumption of a global leadership role, definitely on its own terms. But my favorite story of the day sets aside all the political and historical analysis and goes right to the competitive Olympic heart of the matter.

USA Today‘s story on the projected final gold medal tally predicts that “China will win the gold medal count at the Beijing Olympics, with 51 gold medals to the USA’s 43, while the USA is likely to retain a slight edge in the overall medal count, 104-97. If the predictions hold, it will mark the first time in 72 years that a country besides the USA or Soviet Union claims the most gold medals at a Summer Games.”

Forget the contradictions: a burgeoning free market economy, world class Olympic facilities, an authoritarian government, a record of human rights abuses, and state leaders from more than 50 countries attending the opening of the Games despite that human rights record. These are the Olympics and, in the end, they’re all about going for the gold

If the Olympics are about winners and losers, let’s take a look at what journalists have won and lost in the seven years that have passed since the IOC awarded the Games to Beijing. “There will be no restrictions on journalists in reporting on the Olympic Games,” the Beijing organizers promised in their official bid to host the Games.

In the past couple of weeks, a lot has been written about the 20,000 or so officially accredited international journalists who have not gotten unfettered Internet access inside the Olympic Village, a promise that still has not been fulfilled by China. There has been frustration for journalists and others who have not been allowed into the country because of tightened visa restrictions. Journalists have been roughed up by cops in Beijing and Kashgar.

But in the seven years since China was awarded the Games, the government’s intransigence on press freedom has had far greater repercussions on the hundreds of thousands of Chinese journalists, who long ago learned to live with a censored Internet, restricted movement inside China, abusive cops, and a government that feels it is above answering the legitimate questions its citizens put to it. And as the Games get under way, there are still 26 journalists behind bars in China, jailed for pursuing their jobs. That is the more than any other country, a fact that hasn’t changed since 1999.

To their credit, visiting journalists have been covering stories that take a deeper look at China. But one of the stories that hasn’t been done yet is a close look at the world of Chinese media. International journalists in Beijing should make the effort to meet with their Chinese colleagues, talk through the realities of being reporters, and exchange notes on their profession. Expect some guarded responses at first, but if it goes well the visitors will get a glimpse inside a contradictory world of a rapidly expanding media industry with growing circulation and viewership, deeper Internet penetration across the country, and stepped-up competition for audiences and advertisers–all combined with a government that hands down daily or, when necessary, hourly directives on how stories must be covered.

Realize that although many of these journalists have constantly pushed against government restrictions, many have found that their jobs have become tougher—and they don’t expect the situation to improve once the Olympic spotlight has moved on.

(Reporting from Hong Kong)