From the Spring 2008 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 4.
More than 25,000 members of the foreign media will descend on Beijing this summer to cover one of the world’s most visible sporting events in one of its most insular countries.
The Chinese Communist Party controls all of the primary news outlets in the country and imposes tight restrictions on foreign media. But in an effort to win the bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, the government pledged to ease regulations on visiting journalists who cover the Games.
“We will give the media complete freedom to report when they come to China,” Wang Wei, secretary general of the Beijing bid committee, declared in 2001. “We are confident that the Games’ coming to China not only promotes our economy but also enhances all social conditions, including education, health and human rights.”
In December 2006, the government issued a decree loosening restrictions for foreign media.
The “Service Guide for Foreign Media” states that foreign journalists may travel freely throughout the country and interview anyone who consents during the Olympic period, which lasts through the Paralympics in October.
Less than 100 days before the Opening Ceremonies, however, recent events raise doubts about just how much freedom the government will actually allow visiting reporters.
So far, no good
“The temporary regulations were a big improvement and are still an improvement but China is no where near meeting the expectations that journalists have,” said Jocelyn Ford, a reporter who has lived in Asia for more than 25 years and has reported from Beijing since 2001. “Yes, [the regulations] are a step in the right direction. No, they’re not enough and they are not being enforced adequately enough.”
An August 2007 survey conducted by the Beijing-based Foreign Correspondents Club of China found that 40 percent of the 163 foreign journalists interviewed reported experiencing some form of harassment since the new Olympic rules were implemented. And on April 30, the FCCC released a statement expressing concern about “China’s deteriorating reporting conditions.” The group cited tips from 10 foreign correspondents in China who said they had received anonymous death threats amid growing protests about Western media coverage of turmoil in Tibet.
“If allowed to continue, the reporting interference and hate campaign targeting international media may poison the pre-Games atmosphere for foreign journalists,” warned FCCC President Melinda Liu. “We urge government authorities to investigate the death threats, which violate Chinese law, and otherwise help create an environment in keeping with their Olympic promises.”
A month prior, the organization sent out a message to its e-mail list, noting that it has received an increasing number of reports of foreign correspondents being searched by Chinese authorities.
Last March, Chinese officials would not allow a BBC reporter to cover a riot in the Hunan province, telling him that the new regulations applied “only for Olympics-related stories.”
Authorities also prevented a reporter for a German daily to speak with sources in Tibet. Those he tried to talk with were warned to stay away, according to the FCCC.
Meanwhile, police twice detained a British Sky TV crew reporting near the North Korean border.
According to Human Rights Watch, in at least four other instances since January 2007, foreign correspondents have been stopped or detained in areas including villages populated by many suffering from HIV-AIDS.
Local officials often claim to be unaware or unwilling to abide by the new regulations.
“From my personal experience, the situation does not seem to have changed much,” said Kathleen McLaughlin, who covers China for the Bureau of National Affairs and also writes for The San Francisco Chronicle and The Christian Science Monitor. “I’m not sure it’s so much restriction on officials as it is self-censorship in speaking to foreign media. There really is some distrust. I had one member of the National People’s Congress say he would speak to me if I was Chinese media, but he really wouldn’t talk to foreign press.”
The government often relies on a “spokesman system” to tacitly prevent unauthorized contacts between journalists and officials.
“This is where government agencies have a spokesperson who is charged with meeting with members of the media,” said Ashley Esarey, a professor at Middlebury College who focuses on Chinese politics and media freedom. “And the system has been seen as a way to restrict the information that is available to the media while giving the media some access.”
“It’s a bit of a compromise between giving journalists no information and giving them complete information,” he said
The Chinese government’s attitude toward the media can best be exemplified by its handling of the SARS outbreak in 2003, according to Bob Dietz, who was the Beijing-based spokesman for the World Health Organization at the time.
During the outbreak, the government told the Chinese media to keep quiet for more than four months in order to preserve the country’s stability and image around the world.
As a result of the government-imposed information censorship, the disease spread quickly throughout China and on to other parts of the world.
“After SARS, there was speculation that China had learned its lesson. I never thought that,” said Dietz, now the Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “China got caught in a really embarrassing situation and it had to respond. The response was based more on that than any acceptance of letting the media free.”
The International Olympic Committee attempted to push the Chinese government to stick to its promises.
“For us, freedom of expression is something that is absolute. It’s a human right,” IOC President Jacques Rogge told reporters at a Beijing news conference in March.
In April, Canada’s national public broadcaster CBC/Radio-Canada called on Chinese authorities to restore access to its Web sites.
CBC/Radio-Canada president and chief executive Hubert Lacroix said in a letter to the Chinese ambassador to Canada, Li Shumin, that China had been blocking access to the broadcaster’s English-language Web site since the beginning of 2008, and its French Web site for at least six months.
The IOC also reiterated to officials in Beijing that the host country needs to allow open access to the Internet during the Games.
“The IOC has said that China has promised this for the foreign correspondents but the proof is in the pudding,” said Ford, who chairs the FCCC’s media freedom committee. “We’ve seen some of the worst interventions in Internet access during the past few weeks. When the Olympics come, one hopes they will act in good faith.”
Kevan Gosper, vice chairman of the IOC coordinating commission, said restricting access to the Internet during the games “would reflect very poorly” on the country.
“Our concern is that the press [should be] able to operate as it has at previous games,” Gosper told the Associated Press.
But that may not be possible, according to CPJ’s Dietz.
“When they become committed to making an event happen, their tendency is just to clamp down hard on something rather than to let it flow and let it go in all of these different directions,” Dietz said. “They don’t see the value of having reporting coming out of a place like that. They feel that they still have to control these things.”
Failing the Tibet test
In perhaps the most high-profile breach of China’s pledge to allow greater openness, reporters have been all but forbidden from entering Tibet during the violent protests that took place in March.
After things began to settle down, a select group of foreign media were invited on a closely-monitored tour led by Chinese officials. Meanwhile, the state-controlled media was allowed to publish only favorable articles on the government’s crackdown in the region.
“The clampdown on reporting and expulsion of foreign journalists from Tibet shows the new regulations are virtually meaningless when a breaking news story arises that could cause discomfort to the government,” McLaughlin said. “There’s really no way to square open press regulations with a crackdown on independent journalists attempting to cover a story of global importance.”
Chinese officials openly criticized foreign reporters for their coverage of the riots.
According to a March 25 story in the New York Times, the Chinese government appeared to be blocking foreign Web sites inside the country and censoring foreign news being broadcast about Tibet. The Times reports that Youtube.com was blocked after the riots began, and CNN and BBC broadcasts that mentioned the unrest in Tibet were routinely censored.
The government also allowed Chinese Web sites, which are normally blocked for political expression, to post comments critical of foreign media coverage of Tibet.
“The Chinese are being given a completely different picture of what is happening in Tibet,” Ford said. “They see a small group trying to interfere with the Olympics and give China a bad name.”
Tensions between the Chinese government and western media outlets flared again in April when CNN commentator Jack Cafferty referred to leaders in Beijing as “goons and thugs.”
China’s Foreign Ministry demanded an apology. When no such action was forthcoming, a group of 14 Chinese lawyers announced their intent to sue the news channel, saying Cafferty’s comments “seriously violated and abused the reputation and dignity of the plaintiffs as Chinese people, and caused serious spiritual and psychological injury to the plaintiffs.”
Shortly thereafter, a Chinese primary school teacher and a beautician filed a separate suit against CNN and Cafferty in U.S. District Court in New York, seeking $1.3 billion in compensation — $1 per person in China.
Better from the outside
If restrictions are tight for foreign journalists, they remain near complete for native reporters. The loosened regulations that took effect last January do not apply to them.
Chinese journalists must abide by an even stricter code than the one governing foreign correspondents, and run the risk of being jailed for months or even years when they break the regulations.
Meanwhile, Chinese citizens who work for foreign media organizations in China are likewise excluded, as Chinese law expressly forbids them from working as journalists for foreign publications or electronic media inside the country, relegating them instead to “assistants” or “researchers.”
“Things have actually gotten more restrictive for Chinese journalists,” Dietz said. “During big national events, the government comes down pretty heavily on the media.
“The pressure comes off a week or two after. And this time we didn’t see that happen. It eased a bit. But at the height of the [Chinese Communist Party] Congress in the fall, all the papers ran the same stories with the same headlines.”
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, China has been the world’s leading jailer of journalists for eight years. At least 29 journalists are now in prison, including five who are being held for covering national politics and other issues that would be of interest to journalists coming to cover the Games.
Jamyang Kyi, a veteran producer for state-run Qinghai TV, was arrested on April 1 and has not been seen since April 7.
Chinese officials have not confirmed the detention, but Radio Free Asia quoted an unidentified source in Beijing as saying that police in Qinghai’s capital, Xining, had formally arrested the reporter but no charges were disclosed.
The imprisoned journalists also include employees of foreign news outlets. In June 2006, Zhao Yan, a researcher with the Beijing bureau of The New York Times, was charged during closed door proceedings with fraud and revealing state secrets.
The court dismissed the state secrets charge but upheld the fraud count. Zhao, who has been in jail since September 2004, was arrested shortly after the Times ran a story that may have embarrassed government officials by correctly predicting that former President Jiang Zemin would step down as head of the Central Military Commission.
It remains too early to tell how things will play out for foreign reporters when they arrive in Beijing this summer. But perhaps more importantly, questions remain about what will befall journalists and advocates of press freedom after the Olympics.
The Foreign Ministry announced March 20 that it is considering extending the new media rules. But foreign correspondents in Beijing remain leery.
“The Tibet reaction makes me quite skeptical from an enforcement perspective, but perhaps we should be optimistic given that the rules haven’t been revoked entirely or officially,” McLaughlin said.
Ford said it will be up to foreign correspondents to keep the pressure on the government to continue to improve access.
“I’m hoping that foreign correspondents will try and use the law to know their rights and do a better story,” she said. “If we can get beyond the cynicism — the answer to me is not to give up.”