Olympic Media Rules Preserved in China

By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 18, 2008

SHANGHAI, Oct. 17 -- China announced Friday that it would make permanent the easing of media restrictions that it introduced for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, allowing foreign journalists to travel and conduct interviews without first seeking permission from the government.

"Opening up is very important. I believe in the past year and a half, China has improved a lot in this regard, and I believe it will do an even better job in the future," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said.

The decree, which was signed by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and takes effect immediately, falls short of lifting restrictions on travel to Tibet and other restive areas, which requires additional permits. Since the unrest in Tibet in March, foreign journalists have flooded the government with requests to report from there, but so far only a small group has been allowed to enter the area on a closely supervised trip organized by the Foreign Ministry.

The new rules do not apply to China's domestic media outlets, which remain tightly controlled and regularly receive memos outlining how they should cover stories. During the recent controversy over contaminated infant formula that sickened 53,000 babies, Chinese newspapers, radio and TV stations were told to use only official reports from the state-run New China News Agency and to focus on positive measures the government was taking to control the crisis.

China's Communist government has restricted the movements of foreign journalists for decades and even used to require them to use only assigned interpreters or "minders." Efforts to control the media became even harsher after the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square, when a number of foreign journalists were expelled from the country.

Many journalists say, however, that in recent years they have been allowed to travel and report relatively freely, even though the rules had not changed on paper.

It wasn't until 2007 that China, as part of its pledge to increase media freedoms if it won its bid to host the Olympics, took the landmark step of easing those restrictions.

The Olympic rules had been set to expire Friday.

Journalist organizations said they were pleased with the decision but pointed out that foreign reporters in China still face obstacles when reporting on controversial subjects.

"We urge the government to ensure that police and local officials respect the spirit as well as the letter of the new rules," Jonathan Watts, president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (FCCC) told the Associated Press. "The easing of controls for foreign journalists should not be achieved at the expense of putting more pressure on local sources."

During the Olympic Games, there were at least 30 cases of interference with reporting, according to the FCCC.

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