Press freedom and the Olympic movement

The guiding document of the Olympic movement is the Olympic Charter, a 105-page compendium of rules and regulations, but also principles and ideals that go far beyond sports. For example, the Olympic Games are intended to foment “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles, non-discrimination, and the educational value of good example.” Under the Charter, host cities are required to “ensure the greatest possible coverage of the Games.”

Our colleagues from Human Rights Watch (HRW) have been engaged in a long-term discussion with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) about how the Olympic movement can fully realize these ideals through the creation of a human rights mechanism. HRW recently secured a commitment from the IOC to include human rights protection in its contract with the Olympic host city.

We support this process because more systematic protection of human rights will bolster CPJ efforts to ensure that journalists can cover the Games without impediment. The rights discussion is particularly urgent in the context of the Sochi Games in Russia, which raised a range of issues from LGBT discrimination, to harassment and censorship of the local media.

We recognize that reform will take time and so we are focused on improving the environment for journalists covering the Games in the short term. Our advocacy began with the 2008 Games in Beijing. CPJ issued a critical report on China’s press freedom record entitled “Falling Short.” Prior to the most recent Winter Games in Sochi, CPJ released a report “Media Suffer Winter Chill in Coverage of Sochi Olympics” describing a pattern of obstruction, intimidation, and harassment that limited coverage of sensitive issues such as labor abuses and environmental damage.

Over the years, we’ve had a series of meeting with senior IOC officials to discuss our concerns. Progress was limited and slow, with the IOC willing to quietly intervene to help accredited journalists, but not willing to take public positions or directly challenge governments that failed to live up to press freedom commitments.

But the atmosphere was very different during our September 4 meeting with IOC President Thomas Bach, who took office in September 2013. Bach, a German who competed in fencing at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, acknowledged the challenge and committed to working with us on an ongoing basis. Bach is heading up a broader reform effort, dubbed Olympic Agenda 2020, intended to make the Games less costly and easier to run.

We discussed two specific proposals. The first would create a formal mechanism to allow any journalist who experiences a violation of his or her rights to file a complaint with the IOC. The IOC would investigate the claim and seek to resolve it through contact with the host committee and the local government. The host committee would be required to respond to concerns raised by the IOC, and all such responses would be made public following the Games. Bach committed to having a formal complaint mechanism in place by the 2016 Games in Rio. CPJ believes that the IOC should respond to complaints from all journalists covering the Games, whether they are accredited or not.

Our second proposal involves the creation of a system to ensure that the host cities are in a position to meet their international obligations around press freedom. CPJ proposes the creation of an advisory group made up of prominent journalists to evaluate the bids from a press freedom perspective and submit non-binding recommendation to the IOC Evaluation Commission, which plays a central role in assessing the cities’ capacity to host the Games. Bach committed to further discussion around this proposal. Oslo has withdrawn is bid for the 2022 Winter Games, and it is now being contested between Beijing in China, and Almaty in Kazakhstan, two countries with serious press freedom deficiencies.

Following our meeting with Bach, we sent a letter outlining our proposals and inviting further discussion. The letter is posted here. The IOC has promised a formal response, which we will post here once received.

We look forward to continuing our ongoing dialogue with the IOC and to our next face-to-face meeting with Bach that will take place sometime in 2015. If you have any thoughts or suggestions on how to move the process forward, feel free to post them in the comments section of this blog or to Tweet them at @Joelcpj using the hashtags #pressfreedom and #IOC.

UPDATE: CPJ received this reply from the IOC in early November.