China to Allow More Freedom For Journalists From Abroad

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 2, 2006

BEIJING, Dec. 1 -- China has decided to substantially liberalize restrictions on coverage by foreign journalists ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, the government announced Friday.

A decree from Premier Wen Jiabao's government said foreign reporters, whether assigned here permanently or visiting for the Olympics, will be allowed to roam most of the country freely and report without interference by local police or propaganda officials from Jan. 1, 2007, until Oct. 17, 2008. The Games are in August 2008.

As explained by Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao, the new rules departed clearly -- if temporarily -- from long-standing orders. They also marked a significant watershed for China, where information has long been treated as government property to be manipulated and controlled by propaganda officials.

The new rules apply only to foreign reporters, Liu said, and restrictions on Chinese journalists remain in effect, including Communist Party censorship of all publications and broadcasts. In addition, travel restrictions in Tibet and Xinjiang will continue to apply to foreign correspondents, effectively limiting coverage of those restive areas.

If followed by authorities across the country, the decree nevertheless would for more than 21 months eliminate some major barriers to accurate reporting about China: regulations that legally oblige foreign correspondents to work through local propaganda officials when gathering news. Those restrictions, when followed, have limited frank conversation with Chinese people and emphasized the official version of news.

In practice, foreign reporters in recent years frequently have managed to report on their own, speaking directly with Chinese people while using subterfuge and stealth to avoid getting caught by local police. Those who have been spotted, however, often have been detained, lectured and forced to write confessions that they broke the law. In many cases, their notes and camera equipment have been confiscated. At times, they have been shoved around by police.

In seeking to bring the 2008 Olympics to Beijing, the government had pledged to the International Olympic Committee that the situation would change. In effect, it said reporting in China would be as free as it has been in previous Olympics elsewhere.

But doubts persisted among diplomats, journalists and other foreigners because of China's long history of rigid controls. In particular, they said, Chinese security officials were unlikely to allow free reporting on anti-government groups, such as the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, that might try to take advantage of the Olympics to advertise their dissatisfaction.

Bob Ctvrtlik, a member of the IOC, said Friday that China's announcement debunked the notion that authorities would not adapt to welcome the Games.

"This is a very important step for us," Ctvrtlik said. "The IOC and the IOC membership received criticism for the decision six years ago" to award the Games to Beijing, "and I think many people at the time said significant changes could not occur. I think this action proves that not to be the case."

Even so, there have been indications recently that officials might not be so flexible. The deputy director of the Beijing Public Security Bureau, Liu Shaowu, told reporters last week that the three main threats to Olympic security were terrorism, organized crime and "mass disturbances," a term officials use to describe protests.

A manual published by the Public Security Ministry and handed out to Beijing police, who are studying English in preparation for the Olympics, contained a dialogue making clear how ministry officials believe reporting should be approached. It described a hypothetical situation in which a policeman comes upon a foreign reporter inquiring about Falun Gong:

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