Press Freedom violations in the run-up to the Beijing Games

BY: Jennifer Leong (Hong Kong, UWCAC06-08)

It’s a week before the Olympics open in Beijing, and China is facing her biggest media crisis yet, led on by the authorities’ decision to step-up internet censorship in the press centre in Beijing. Sites which are currently inaccessible include: Amnesty International, whose front page displays the five Olympic rings replaced by interlocking handcuffs; the BBC Chinese site, sites whose addresses contain the word ‘Tibet’, as well as certain articles on Wikipedia and the site of the religious sect ‘Falun Gong’, outlawed in China, also met with the same fate.

The author recalls that, in a previous article for United Words, she had advocated for diplomacy over boycott to the Olympics, so the question now is, should this stance be changed? Should international pressure be stepped-up in response to intensifying censorship in Beijing?

When China was awarded the Games 7 years ago, she made the promise to allow unhindered access to the Internet for journalists covering the event. Beijing’s response to the international media’s accusation of her ‘breaking yet another promise’ is that the authorities had never meant to allow full access to the Internet.
The officials believe that blocking certain ‘sensitive’ sites would not affect journalists reporting on the Games because the content of the sites have nothing to do with the Games anyway. Although the author is at a lost as to how the BBC reporters’ work would not be affected when they could not even access their own news site.

The Internet has, since its introduction to China, been an immense headache to the authorities, due mainly to its ability to quickly and widely disseminate information. In a single-party state in which only good news gets publicized, the Party has always guarded against ‘alternate’ sources of information. The sites mentioned above have never been accessible in mainland China, so even if Beijing agrees to unblock them, (which is still highly unlikely) the officials would only be making a very rare exception that would not outlast the Games.

Perhaps the most surprising development over the past 2 days was that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) backs Beijing on the censorship issue. Kevan Gosper, the head of the IOC press commission, confirmed that some of its officials had agreed to! Chinese demands that some sensitive sites be blocked.

“I regret that it now appears Bocog [the Beijing Organising Committee] has announced there will be limitations on website access during Games time.”

The fact that the IOC has been repeatedly told by the Chinese authorities that some sites would be unavailable, but still chooses to negotiate with Beijing to ensure minimum resistance for journalists worldwide, suggests that the organizing committee has chosen diplomacy over pressure. It is also, in my view, the only practical resolution for the present, seeing that the Games have to go ahead in a mere 7 days’ time.

That said, however, it still seems pretty untactful for Beijing to make such a bold move in the run-up to the Games. Blocking the internet sites serves no particular purpose to the Chinese Government except that it sends a strong political message of what is and isn’t acceptable for Beijing. The international press might have to live with the limitations on their sources, but this would not stop journalists from writing articles hostile to the Games and its organizers. In the end, it looks like Beijing would suffer from losing favour with the media.

Another cause for concern is that even with the initial promise to allow ‘complete press freedom’, Beijing has set the time period for such liberties to ‘during the Games’ only. So what happens after August 24, when most tourists and journalists leave and international focus on the Chinese authorities wanes? Would the Chinese media again face strict restrictions in their reporting? The trouble is, they don’t have the privilege most international press take for granted—the Chinese reporters do not have an international platform for them to disseminate their news, especially news which Beijing deems to be ‘inappropriate’. There is certainly a lot of drama in store in the days to come, and not just on the sporting field either.

– United World College Student Magazine –

One thought on “Press Freedom violations in the run-up to the Beijing Games

  1. The Beijing Olympics of 2008 will definitely be a showdown between China and the world.

    There was an article in the Standard today which commented about the mainland’s quick fix in internet censorship as well as in the rapidly deteriorating air quality. Where’s the guarantee that China will keep her promises after the Olympics?

    I quote “the real Olympic challange is cleaning the air not for a few weeks, but forever”.

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