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Olympic Chief Vows Free Speech Defense

The IOC's Jacques Rogge says he has insisted that officials in China enforce a more open media law.
The IOC's Jacques Rogge says he has insisted that officials in China enforce a more open media law. (By Greg Baker -- Associated Press)
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By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 11, 2008

BEIJING, April 10 -- Calling freedom of expression an absolute human right, the president of the International Olympic Committee said that athletes at the Summer Games in Beijing would be allowed to speak without restriction at some Olympic sites and that he had insisted that Chinese officials begin fully enforcing a new media law that promises journalists full access in China.

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China, meanwhile, canceled plans to reopen the Tibet Autonomous Region to foreigners May 1, after its closure over anti-Chinese protests. It also said that arrests in January and March had uncovered a plot by radical Islamists to kidnap foreigners, including journalists, to bomb hotels and government buildings, and to poison food in Beijing and Shanghai.

The announcements come amid a wave of international protests against China's crackdown against Tibetans. The uproar is undermining the government's plans to use the Olympics to showcase friendly relations with foreign countries as well as with domestic ethnic groups in China.

A new Chinese law in theory allows journalists to travel freely throughout the country this year and to interview any willing subject without advance permission, apart from special permits needed for travel to Tibet. But the law has not been enforced. Foreign journalists continue to be detained while covering sensitive stories and in most cases cannot get permission to visit Tibet.

"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, where he faced repeated questions about human rights, politics and disruptions this week in Europe and San Francisco of the traditional Olympic torch relay.

"There are small restrictions in not making propaganda or demonstrations in Olympic venues, like on the podium. . . . We are a movement of 205 nationalities, and many of these nationalities are in conflict with each other," Rogge said. The IOC will provide athletes with guidance on what constitutes propaganda, he added, "and we'll do this with a lot of common sense."

Athletes will be allowed to speak freely in on-site media interviews after their competitions, even on the grounds of Olympic venues, where the Olympic Charter bans political protests.

His comments follow attempts by members of a Chinese police unit who escorted the torch in Paris to stop runners there from wearing small badges that said "For a better world."

Asked what would happen if an athlete took a victory lap carrying the banned flag of the Tibetan government-in-exile, a symbol of independence, Rogge said many athletes had displayed multiple flags.

"It is clear that it is perfectly legitimate for a Spanish athlete to carry the flag of his own province . . . and of course the national flag. If you have the combination of a foreign flag with the national flag, then we will have to make an interpretation if this is propaganda or a demonstration," he said.

A spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Jiang Yu, said Thursday that she hoped the IOC would stick with its policy of "not bringing in any irrelevant political factors."

On restrictions on travel to Tibet, Rogge said, "I have asked the authorities to implement the media law in full. We know that today it is not yet fully implemented. And I have insisted that this be done as soon as possible."


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