International Olympic Committee released its review of Beijing's
August Games a few days ago, it didn't hold back from patting itself or China's
government on the back. The Games were, to quote the IOC's fact sheet, "by almost every measure, an indisputable
success." One of the intangible results the IOC mentioned was that
"unprecedented international attention from journalists, activist organizations
and foreign leaders highlighted China's
strengths as well as its shortcomings."
And, "the Olympic Games in Beijing saw the largest
media contingent for any event ever--more than 28,000 journalists from around
the world. Reduced restrictions on foreign media extended indefinitely after
the Games," the IOC said, not to mention that these Games were the first to
have global digital coverage and that traffic to www.olympic.org was
more than double than during the 2004 Athens Games.
Here's what the IOC announced after all was said and done:
The Games left a positive legacy for China
in several areas--social, urban, environmental, sport, and economic--and produced
intangible benefits for China
to build on. Only time will tell whether China will take full advantage of
the opportunities that the Games provided.
You have to expect the IOC to
cheerlead for surviving what might have been the most politically fraught Games
in years. But frankly, post-Olympics China is off to a bad start and the
media the landscape looks remarkably like what came before, if not worse. There
is even more heavy-handed government control of controversial issues like the melamine-food tainting public health
disaster, and an accelerating crackdown on reporting about the increasing social unrest as China's economy
follows the rest of the world into recession or worse.
The IOC makes the point that the
temporarily eased restrictions on foreign journalists--which allowed them to
travel in China
and interview any Chinese citizen who would agree to speak with them--has been
made permanent. The reality is a bit different: foreign journalists were not
allowed to travel to Tibet,
for example, during the march demonstrations that ultimately led to ethnic
rioting by Tibetans. Nor were foreign journalists made to feel especially
welcome in Sichuan
province after the story turned from a humanitarian disaster to a political one
of angry parents demanding to know why so many children had died in what
appears to have been shoddily built schools. As for open access to the Chinese
man on the street, foreign journalists have been regularly reporting that they
have seen their interviewees questioned by security personnel soon after the
reporters have walked away.
The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China has
done a good job of cataloguing the abuses their members faced before,
during, and after the Games. The group's records do not paint a picture of a
government that has come to warmly embrace the role of journalism as practiced
by foreign journalists. And in recent weeks, there have been two disturbing
stories: one of an attack on a CBS crew covering an
environmental story on how China
disposes of toxic computer waste, and another on a Belgian TV crew from the Flemish station VRT reporting on the
conditions of people with AIDS.
Those are nasty incidents, but frankly foreign
reporters are not in great jeopardy in China--only one has been expelled in
recent years, and the incidents involving physical abuse are more remarkable
because they are not commonplace. Harassment by police at the village or
township level usually means a few hours in detention and sometimes a scuffle
or argument about handing over pictures or video. Still, the FCCC has
documented 338 incidents since the January 1, 2007 "Olympic free reporting"
regulation took effect.
mainstream Chinese journalists have learned to operate within the government's
restrictions--the vast majority of the 29 or so (the final number is being
compiled as I am writing) behind bars in China are more political activists
and bloggers who post on overseas sites disliked by the government. Reporters
and their editors continue to push the envelope on stories as opportunities
arise, but that was the case long before August's Games. China's media
is not as bleak as many imagine. A story headlined "Chinese
Netizens 'Concerned' Over Local Officials' Integrity: Survey" that appeared
in the official People's Daily is not
atypical. But China
media watchers do see increasingly more reliance on official news outlets like
Xinhua as the primary source for politically sensitive information.
We can't really expect
the IOC to be an expert on China's media universe, but their approach to the
question of reporting for foreign and local journalists is another indicator of
how tone deaf they have been to the entire question of media in China. Let them
praise China for having pulled off the Games in a spectacular fashion--even
getting Beijing's notoriously toxic clouds to vanish for the duration of the Olympics. But please, don't claim that the Games have wrought any significant
change in the climate for reporters. Things have not gotten better, and in fact
there are indications that press freedom is harder to come by as the economic
climate continues to deteriorate.