In July 2001, Beijing celebrated Friday the 13th in style. That’s when the International Olympic Committee in Moscow awarded the Chinese capital the 2008 Games. Not only because the Chinese bid proposed wonderful stadiums and an environmentally-friendly edition of the Games but also because it promised to make great progress in the area of human rights. To what extent has this promise been fulfilled?
Press freedom in China ahead of the Olympics is not as free as the organisers promised in their bid for the Games
Jiang Xiaoyu is a man of power. He is one of the vice presidents of the Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games. In March, when the torch relay was met by pro-Tibet protesters on several of its stops, he said that the Games were purely a sporting event and should not be mixed with politics. A different message from that which helped Beijing secure its bid seven years ago.
Beijing impressed the International Olympic Committee by listing its political aims. The deputy mayor of Beijing, Liu Jingmin, said in February 2001 that the bid for the Olympic Games should not only drive the development of the city but should also push forward developments in society, which included democracy and human rights.
On July 12 2001, just one day before Beijing won the bid Wang Wei, another vice president of the Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games, said that if the foreign media came to the Games in China they would have complete freedom to report.
Paul Steiger, who chairs the board of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists and is very concerned by Chinese media politics, summarises the promises made at the time:
“In terms of the public statements of both the IOC and the Chinese the assertion was clear that they would relax the restrictions that they have on the media throughout the period of the coverage of the games that includes the run-up to the games, the games themselves and the aftermath.”
Indeed the rules have been relaxed. But only for foreign reporters. Since January 1 2007 they have been allowed to cover the whole of China. They just have to have their interview partners cleared.
This has greatly improved their working conditions but Jocelyn Ford, who is a member of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, is critical: “Last year -- the first year of regulations that were supposed to allow free reporting for foreign correspondents -- we had 180 violations of those regulations. Some members who were assaulted and many people were not allowed to interview Chinese who were willing to be interviewed.”
“We had other situations where foreign reporters were simply harassed and asked for paperwork and their passports and they were taken away from these news stories so they couldn’t do their jobs, so we’re finding an awful lot of interference in foreign reporting still.”
This interference was especially noticeable during the protests that erupted in favour of Tibet in March. Several foreign journalists were removed from Tibet by force.
Tighter restrictions for Chinese journalists
Yet the foreign journalists are in a better position than the Chinese ones says Zhang Yu from Independent Chinese PEN: “It’s become even stricter for Chinese journalists. The Party’s propaganda department is giving out instructions on what and how things should be reported for all big events. We can’t report the way we want.”
“Journalists who tend to report in a more independent way will have problems. The closer the Olympic Games get the more problems there are for some people. Some are losing their jobs; others are ending up in jail and others in court.”
On June 10 the online journalist Huang Qi was arrested -- charged with illegal possession of state secrets. For nine years now, China has had the most arrested journalists in the world. Right now there are at least 26 in jail. Sharon Hom directs the organisation, Human Rights in China and has one first request to the Chinese government:
“[The first thing] they could do is release all of the journalists who are in prison primarily for doing their jobs and that is reporting the news writing their opinions or simply freedom of expression.”