Journalists Say China Is Not Living Up To Openness Pledge

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 3, 2008

BEIJING -- Three state-of-the-art Olympic media centers in Beijing have been equipped with rows of brand-new computers. Thousands of English-speaking volunteers stand at the ready, trained to offer Internet access with a smile.

Behind the scenes, their bosses on the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games are busy preparing daily news conferences and field trips to showcase all that China has to offer. There are lectures on how to protect the giant panda, briefings on the safety of Olympic Village food and opportunities to witness the gleaming urban development of Beijing.

But much to the dismay of organizers, the thousands of credentialed journalists who have begun pouring into the capital are not impressed.

Instead of writing about pandas or Olympic food, Western journalists are mostly covering stories that the Chinese government would rather they not -- the city's chronic pollution, for instance -- and complaining about a lack of access to Internet sites and the famed Tiananmen Square.

Their determination to cover stories critical of China has proved that they have their own ideas about what constitutes news and how to pursue it. And at the same time, their frustrations over access underscore the gap between the kind of freedom they are used to enjoying and the control that the Chinese government is used to wielding.

Authorities here had told the International Olympic Committee that reporters would be allowed to cover the Games as they would any other Olympics, but so far, that has not been the case, media advocates say.

"They gave pledges that we would be able to report without restrictions, that we would be able to travel anywhere in China and uplink anywhere in China -- the same conditions as had applied in previous Olympic Games, and patently that is not happening," said John Barton, sports director for the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, which represents broadcasters in 57 countries.

The Chinese government has had frustrations of its own. In the last week, the South Korean broadcaster SBS aired footage of a rehearsal for the secretive opening ceremony of the Games, outraging Chinese officials. A reporter for SBS said a credentialed crew entered the National Stadium to shoot the rehearsal with a camera in full view.

"Nobody stopped them or asked them to leave during their shooting," the reporter said.

On Saturday, reporters grilled IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies about the failure of organizers to provide an uncensored Internet, as promised. But Davies said the IOC could only encourage China to "move in the direction to give you the widest access possible."

Most news media in China are state-owned, but even reporters working at commercially driven publications are subject to strict censorship. Journalists must resort to euphemisms when referring to politically sensitive topics or avoid them altogether. Chinese censors use increasingly sophisticated filtering software to block access to Web sites and conduct surveillance of online bulletin boards and chat rooms.

But when bidding for the Games in 2001, the secretary general of the Beijing Olympic Bid Committee, Wang Wei, said journalists covering the Games would have "complete freedom to report."

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