Olympics: Talking tough, much too late

During the war in Vietnam, the daily press briefings by the American military were called the “Five o’clock Follies” by the foreign press corps that was on the receiving end of the military’s damage control aimed at controlling the story from Vietnam. The Beijing Games have their own daily press meeting, at 10 am, hosted by BOCOG’s media chief, Wang Wei, and its spokesman, Sun Weide. Giselle Davies appears as the IOC’s spokeswoman. Sometimes they have an additional speaker at the podium. The idea is to project a positive image, downplay disputes, and deal with what seems to be a slowly rising level of frustration from the journalists in attendance.

Sun has the tough job of defending China’s failure to keep to its promise of allowing reporters freedom to cover China and the Games, the promise it made in 2001 when it was bidding for the Games. He is a government functionary, stolid, and capable of giving flat denials and putting full stop to questioning.

Davies has a tougher job with higher expectation of frankness, given her IOC role. So far, she has refrained from criticizing the IOC’s partner, China, and fairly consistently delivered lines like: “We are very pleased with how the organizers are putting up a great sports event. The organizers have put together an operationally successful event for the athletes. That’s what these Games are about.”

So it was good to hear her hit a harder note when she was asked about the roughing up of John Ray, ITN’s Beijing correspondent on Wednesday. “The IOC does disapprove of any attempts to hinder a journalist who is going about doing his job seemingly within the rules and regulations,” Davies told the daily press briefing. “This, we hope, has been addressed. We don’t want to see this happening again.”

It is rare for the IOC to sound even this critical of a note, but there have been exceptions. IOC spokesman Kevan Gosper broke discipline when the issue of restricted Internet access broke out shortly before the Games started. And President Jacques Rogge was critical of China around the time of the Tibetan riots; he expressed his “great concern” over the violence there. But basically, the IOC has tried to distance itself from overt criticism of China, particularly around the media issue.

My favorite IOC quote was one made not in public, but in a meeting CPJ had with the IOC in their headquarters in Lausanne in 2007. Meeting with Olympic Games Executive Director Gilbert Felli and Davies, a CPJ delegation had pressed for more action on the IOC’s part to ensure media freedom and address the fact that China was, and still is, the world’s largest jailer of journalists.

“It is not within our mandate to act as an agent for concerned groups,” Felli said. “Journalists are imprisoned all over the world, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for bad reasons.”

It’s good to hear Davies start to talk tough, but I’m afraid it is the IOC’s tone-deaf approach since 2001 to the question of media freedom in China that has gotten us to this point.

(Reporting from Hong Kong)