IOC Allows China To Limit Reporters' Access to Internet

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 31, 2008

BEIJING, July 30 -- The International Olympic Committee and the Chinese government acknowledged Wednesday that reporters covering the Olympics will be blocked from accessing Internet sites that Chinese authorities consider politically sensitive.

The avowed censorship, although standard procedure for China's millions of Internet users, contradicted pledges made earlier by IOC and Chinese officials that the estimated 20,000 journalists and technicians due in Beijing next week for the Olympic Games would have unfettered Web access. It was the latest in a series of steps taken by Chinese authorities reneging on promises they made seven years ago, when Beijing was granted the Games, to allow free reporting during the Olympics.

In response, the Paris-based advocacy group Reporters Without Borders issued a guide on how to use proxy servers to get around China's censorship. The Web-based guide also advised reporters covering the Games, which begin Aug. 8, that their telephone calls and e-mails are liable to be monitored by Chinese security agencies.

The guide itself was blocked by China, which employs an extensive array of monitoring software to comb through whatever people call up on their screens and block sites that China's security or propaganda officials consider unacceptable. Sites run by Amnesty International, the human rights group; Falun Gong, the spiritual movement; Tibet independence sympathizers; and a host of other human rights groups hostile to aspects of China's Communist Party rule have been targeted by the censorship equipment, which is backed up by an estimated 30,000 monitors employed by the Public Security Bureau.

Kevan Gosper, an IOC official with responsibilities for media relations, told reporters in Beijing that Olympic officials had negotiated with the Chinese government an accord under which China's censors would continue blocking politically sensitive sites for reporters covering the Games. The pledge of unrestricted access applied only to sites related to the Olympic competitions, he explained.

Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, said at a news conference that Chinese authorities would do their best to make sure reporters could cover the Games without hindrance, despite the censorship. He suggested the banned topics were not part of the athletic events and should not be of interest to reporters anyway.

Journalists at the Main Press Center, which is to house up to 5,000 reporters, raised their complaints after discovering they could not call up an Amnesty International report issued Monday criticizing China's human rights record leading up to the Games. They also could not access Falun Gong sites without going through a proxy server and said the overall speed of the Internet at the press center seemed to be way below par.

At the Beijing International Media Center, reporters could access Wikipedia's home page but could not search the site. Major global news sites were available, but the British Broadcasting Corp.'s Chinese-language site was blocked.

Because of China's extensive filtering system, which responds to a long list of key words maintained by the Public Security Bureau, the Internet here has long been painfully slow, particularly in areas where monitoring is heavy.

Dennis Wilder, the White House's Asian affairs director, told reporters in Washington he was "disappointed that they clamped down on the Internet" in China.

"There have been questions about the access to the Internet and other issues at the Olympic centers," he said. "We think the Chinese government needs to heed those concerns, that if China is going to demonstrate it is truly moving forward as a modern society, this is part of it."

Amnesty International charged that the censorship violated China's earlier commitments and went against the grain of the Olympics.

"The International Olympic Committee and the Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games should fulfill their commitment to full media freedom and provide immediate uncensored Internet access at Olympic media venues," said Mark Allison, the group's East Asia researcher. "Censorship of the Internet at the Games is compromising fundamental human rights and betraying the Olympic values."

Correspondent Jill Drew in Beijing and staff writer Dan Eggen in Washington contributed to this report.

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