Beijing: Free the press

By Charles Whelan

BEIJING, Oct 12, 2007 - Concerns over Internet access, coverage of the torch relay, and potential police harassment of journalists surfaced when the world’s media held talks here this week with Beijing Olympic organisers.

The Chinese government has pledged that the more than 20,000 foreign journalists expected in Beijing to cover next year’s Games will be free to report on the Olympics and the political, social and economic affairs of the country.

Liu Jingmin, Beijing vice mayor and vice president of the Games organising committee, told the two-day World Press Briefing which closed Friday that the Chinese government was determined to meet its press freedom obligations.
We will review and amend our Olympic media operations plan, so as to improve every segment, iron out every flaw, and to deliver the best media services possible at Games time,'' he said. But more than 330 media executives spoke frankly about concern over restricted access to the Internet, a crucial reporting tool, freedom to cover the torch relay, dubbed the Journey of Harmony,’’ and the potential risks of detention faced by international journalists.
Nobody got real answers here,'' said one executive, who added that worries focused on the apparent failure of central government guidelines on press freedom to trickle down’’ to police and security personnel on the streets.
Foreign media in China still complain of being stopped, searched, interrogated and sometimes detained while working outside Beijing or even in the capital, nine months after new regulations abolishing travel and interview restrictions came into effect.
Olympic organising committee media director Sun Weijia sought to allay those concerns, saying law enforcement officers at local levels were cooperating better with the new regulations.
Freedom of reporting will be ensured,'' Sun said. On the torch relay, the longest and most ambitious in Olympic history, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) lined up behind journalists concerned that they could have trouble getting access as the relay winds its way through China and up to the summit of Mount Everest in Tibet. The Chinese Olympic organisers are demanding that journalists wanting to cover the relay apply separately to every Chinese province along the route, a time consuming and bureaucratic nightmare, according to some media outlets. Normally, there is just one accreditation to cover the entire torch relay. This will have to change,’’ said a US broadcaster.
The IOC’s Coordination Commission, which works with the Olympic organising committee on preparing the Games, will travel to Beijing this month to attempt to smooth over a range of issues, including the torch relay.
This is not what we would like to see,'' Anthony Edgar, the IOC's head of media operations, said of the relay plans. It is very cumbersome and it will be discussed at the Coordination Commission in two weeks.’’
On Internet access, foreign journalists got no promises that they would be able to tear down the Great Firewall of China during the Olympics.
China tightly polices cyberspace and Chinese web surfers see a stripped-down version of the Internet minus sites such as the BBC and those belonging to human rights groups or any other judged subversive by the country’s communist rulers.
Director Sun indicated the decisions on access to the Internet were made at the highest levels of the Chinese government and Olympic organisers had no say on the matter.
``We will supply ‘convenient’ Internet access to ensure that coverage of the Olymic Games will be conducted without difficulties,’’ he said.