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."
Seven years later, Chinese authorities and the Western news media apparently have different understandings of "complete freedom." Sun Weida, a spokesman for Beijing's Olympic organizing committee, and Liu Jianchao, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, suggested recently that reporters did not actually need to visit blocked Web sites to do their jobs. Sun was surrounded by a mob of reporters after a news conference, and when he insisted that the Internet was free and open in China, some of them shouted, "That's not true!"
"I've had some difficulties accessing Web sites about Falun Gong and Tibet," said Adalberto Leister, a reporter with Folha de Sao Paulo, the biggest newspaper in Brazil. "My assistant has to talk to someone in Brazil and get them to e-mail me on my personal e-mail account. I was in Athens, and it wasn't like this."
NBC, which is promising to air 3,600 hours of Olympic coverage and has paid a reported $900 million to broadcast the Games, has asked for more live footage from Tiananmen Square. The Chinese government, though, has committed to only six hours a day and no interviews.
And yet at the grand opening of the Olympic Main Press Center last month, Sun Weijia, director of media operations for the Beijing Olympic organizing committee, said: "You can broadcast and you can do live broadcasts on Beijing streets and from Tiananmen Square. If you want to have an interview with anybody, you need only the permission of the speaker. This applies to all areas: the venues, the city, the suburbs."
But television crews from South America and Germany have complained publicly about being harassed and followed by plainclothes police or about public security police who have cut off live shots even though the reporters had permission to film.
Journalists were particularly upset when they found access to certain Web sites blocked. Under pressure, officials on Friday allowed access to the previously blocked sites of the BBC and Amnesty International. Other sites that have required the use of proxy software to view, such as those of Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, were also unblocked.
But reporters in the Olympic Main Press Center still could not access other sites, including that of the Tibetan government in exile and various sites and blogs referring to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
Kevan Gosper, a spokesman for the IOC, said he was embarrassed by having promised that Internet access would be unfettered, only to find out that wasn't the case. He initially suggested to reporters that a deal on access had been made between senior IOC leaders and the Chinese government, but then reversed himself Friday.
"I raised the question as to whether there had been a separate deal," Gosper said in an interview. "Since then, in the last hours I've had an absolute assurance from the IOC that there was absolutely no alternative agreement to enable a blockage of sites."
"We are not working in a democratic society; we're working in a communist society," Gosper added.
Zhan Jiang, journalism dean at the China Youth University for Political Science, argued that the Olympics would help bring gradual press freedom to China.
"Although the Chinese government wants to guide what the foreign media reports, the foreign media know very clearly what they want to cover and what they don't," Zhan said. "I think the government is prepared for that. The fact that they have unblocked some Web sites shows they are cooperating quietly."
But Alfred Wu, a former reporter for a party newspaper in Beijing who now contributes editorials to a Hong Kong paper, disagreed.
"When I entered journalism, I was educated by my work unit about the rules. There are about 20 to 30 things we couldn't cover, such as infectious diseases and the voting during the People's Congress," Wu said. "Compared with 10 years ago, the censorship is more strict, especially since President Hu and Premier Wen took office."
Meanwhile, reporters continue to say they are being prevented from doing their jobs.
A fully credentialed photographer was able to visit the swimming and water polo venues Friday but said security guards stopped him from entering the Olympic National Sports Center, where the modern pentathlon will be held.
"I tried three different access points," said the photographer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because his bosses didn't want him speaking for the company. "We're supposed to have access to all venues for a clean shot before the spectators come, but they said 'No access today.' There was no explanation."
Correspondent Jill Drew and researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.