PtG Article 26.06.2007

Promises and reality in foreign reporting from the Olympics

Organisers of the Olympic Games in Beijing have promised that foreign journalists can travel freely around China, interview who they want and enjoy uncenscored access to the Internet during the Games. New freer regulations on reporting in China up to and during the Olympics came into force on 1 January 2007 but the application of the new rules show that there is still some way between promises and reality.

The new regulations came into force on 1 January 2007 and will expire two months after the Olympic Games in 2008. Entitled ”Regulations on reporting activities in China by foreign journalists during the Beijing Olympic Games and the prepatory period”, the rules are an attempt by the Chinese government to live up to its promises of greater press freedom during the Olympic Games - also on topics not directly related to the Games.

Promise no. 1: Foreign journalists will be able to travel freely around China

On 28 September 2006, China Daily reported a promise by Sun Weija, director of the Media Operation Department of the organising committee, that during the Games

”overseas media will be able to freely travel around China. We have no restrictions on travel for foreign journalists in China. They can travel anywhere in China.”

The promise has come true in article 6 in the new regulations which say that in order to interview organisations or individuals in China, journalists need only to obtain the interviewee’s prior consent.

The promise contrasts sharply with the rules that previously applied to foreign correspondents in China. Article 15 in the Regulations Concerning Foreign Journalists and Permanent Offices of Foreign News Agenciesmade it mandatory for journalists to gain permission to make reporting trips outside of Chinese cities where they are based.

From January 2007, foreign journalists - whether they reside in China or not - can set up interviews with whoever they want and will not necessarily have to be accompanied or assisted by a Chinese official when reporting, the director of the Information Department at the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Liu Jianchao, interpreted the new rules when they were introduced at a press conference in 2006.

The reality for promise no. 1

Experienced foreign correspondents in China speculate, however, that Chinese officials will apply pressure on potential interviewees to limit the number of interviews that foreign journalists in reality can obtain.

In May 2007, the NGO Human Rights Watch reported that prominent lawyers in China representing civil rights and human rights cases had told the NGO that they had been given a blanket prohibition by state security agents requiring them to stop talking to foreign media. Several localities have also  adopted regulations that prohibit lawyers and court officials from talking to the media.

Also in May 2007, Harald Maass, China correspondent of the German daily Frankfurter Rundschau, and Tim Johnson, the China correspondent of the US newspaper chain McClatchy, were summoned separately by Zhang Lizhong, a division director at the foreign ministry’s information department, for questioning about trips they had made to Tibet in April 2007.

According to the NGO Reporters sans Frontiers, the two reporters were told that their reports were wrong and unacceptable. One reporter was told that he should have gained permission before he went to Tibet, and the other was told that the new reporting rules do not apply to Tibet. Therefore Reporters sans Frontiers have called for clarification of the status of Tibet in the Olympic reporting rules.

Promise no. 2: No restrictions on what journalists report and who they interview

On 13 October 2006, the People's Daily Online reported a promise by Sun Weija, director of the Media Operations Department of the organising committee, that

 "the foreign media will enjoy press freedom in China as long as they obey Chinese law. There will be no restrictions on what they report and who they interview. I believe that after the new regulations are issued, the foreign media will work under the same conditions as they have in all previous games.” 

The current rules for foreign journalists working in China are outlined in the Handbook for Foreign Correspondents in China.

The regulations in the handbook mainly apply to resident foreign correspondents and contain rules on how to obtain interviews from a wide range of actors in Chinese society and also prevent journalists from conducting ”activities outside their registered scope of business.”

Article 2 of the new Olympic regulations says, however, that the new rules apply to foreign journalist who cover the Olympic Games and related matters.

The reality of promise no. 2

The degree to which something will be considered a related matter remains to be seen.

In 2006, the American newspaper Christian Science Monitor reported that it had obtained a copy of an official police language training manual which among other things teaches Beijing police men ”How to Stop Illegal News Coverage.” It is being used to teach Beijing policemen the English phrases they might need when dealing with Olympic visitors. 

Published by China's Public Security Bureau University and the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau, "Olympic Security English" contains a practice dialog entitled "How to Stop Illegal News Coverage".

The dialog teaches policemen the English phrases they would need to detain a foreign reporter found talking to a Chinese citizen about Falun Gong, an outlawed spiritual movement.

They are taught how to say, "You're a sports reporter. You should only cover the Games," and to tell the reporter that Falun Gong is "beyond the permit" and "beyond the limit of your coverage and illegal."

Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao, when announcing the new regulations at a press conference in 2006, would not say whether the manual would be withdrawn in light of the new rules.

But some topics appear to be outside outside what the Chinese authorities consider Olympics-related. According to Human Rights Watch the military stopped BBC correspondent James Reynolds from reporting on the aftermath of a riot in Hunan province in March 2007, telling him the new regulations were “only for Olympics-related stories.”  

In at least four other instances since 1 January 2007, foreign correspondents have been stopped or detained in areas including villages of HIV-AIDS sufferers in Henan province and along China’s border with North Korea. The responsible state security personnel were either unaware of or unwilling to abide by the new regulations. Those journalists were released only after urgent phone calls to Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials demanding that local police respect their reporting freedom, Human Rights Watch reports.

Finally, China has already imposed one important restriction in terms of Olympic coverage. In order to interview Chinese athletes, all foreign media must make requests three weeks in advance.  A measure that potentially makes it very difficult to cover developments involving Chinese athletes. 

Promise no. 3: Overseas media will enjoy uncensored access to the Internet

On 28 September 2006, China Daily reported a promise by Li Jingbo, head of Media Services, that "the Internet service provided to news services at the Games would be uncensored.”

If the statement is taken to mean that journalists coming to China for the Olympic Games can get access to an uncensored Internet anywhere it would mean a radical departure from the current state of affairs where the Internet is heavily censored with the active help from Internet companies and search engines like Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft and Skype. 

The reality of promise no. 3:

That is unlikely to happen believes Louise Evans, a former China correspondent reporting for The Australian. She has asked Li Jingbo when the Internet would stop being censored for the Games and where.

"Li stated twice that the Internet is not censored in China, which of course it is. So Li made headlines by commiting not to censor something he states isn’t censored," reports Evans.

A telecommunication consultant with the Beijing organising committee answered the where question for Louise Evans. He said that uncensored Internet access could easily be limited to the three main areas of foreign media operation: the main press centre, the media tribunes in the sporting venues and the media village.