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Beijing is accused of unfair play

Pre-Olympic promises of more media rights are a sham, journalists say.

August 07, 2007|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — If there were an Olympic medal for irony, this might have been a contender:

An international press freedom organization held a demonstration Monday to complain that China has failed to live up to promises that it would give foreign journalists the unfettered ability to cover the news in the run-up to the 2008 Summer Games.

The result? Not long after the demonstration ended, police roughed up and briefly detained the journalists covering the event.

The almost perfect incongruity of Monday's face-off reflects a discordant side of the Olympics that is sure to grow as the Games draw closer.

To China, the Olympics represent a golden opportunity to showcase the world's most populous nation and demonstrate how far it has come. To international human rights organizations, it is an opportunity to show how far it still has to go.

With this week marking one year before the start of the Games, several organizations issued reports or held events sharply criticizing China's record on human rights and journalistic freedom, and calling on the International Olympic Committee to demand change.

"Wednesday is one year before the Olympics, and we have a very strong feeling that the government is not making any positive moves in terms of press freedom," said Vincent Brossel of Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based group that sponsored the demonstration Monday. Brossel complained that the government continues to hinder foreign correspondents, jail Chinese journalists, block Internet sites and exhibit what he called a "lack of respect for freedom of expression in China."

Amnesty International and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists echoed the complaint.

The country's domestic news media remain under tight state control, with virtually nothing published or broadcast that does not further the aims of the Communist Party.

Those who cross the line, typically on independent websites these days, face severe consequences. Among the most famous recent examples is Shi Tao, a poet and journalist serving a 10-year sentence for "leaking state secrets" -- the crime he was charged with in 2004 for writing an e-mail about media restrictions before the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Foreign reporters do not generally face the same risks and have more freedom to report what they see. But they do face harassment and threats, and until this year needed official approval to travel outside Western-influenced cities such as Beijing or Shanghai. Some areas, such as Tibet, remain virtually off-limits.

Not long after being awarded the Games six years ago, China vowed to improve its human rights record. In December, it announced new rules for foreign journalists, lifting the severe restrictions under which they had operated and essentially saying that, from January of this year until just after the Olympics, they could go anywhere and interview anyone.

Conditions have improved, according to two reports issued in the last week by Human Rights Watch and the Foreign Correspondents Club of China. But both reports concluded that the government has not lived up to its promise and that reporters continue to face harassment, detention and stonewalling, especially in rural areas of the country where officials are either unaware of the new rules or ignore them.

"The Chinese government's attempts to intimidate and detain foreign journalists for simply doing their jobs shows contempt for Olympic ideas of fair play," Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement accompanying a 40-page report issued Monday. "The ongoing harassment and detention of journalists makes Beijing's Olympic pledge on media freedoms seem more like a public relations ploy than a sincere policy initiative."

Ninety-five percent of 163 reporters surveyed by the Foreign Correspondents Club said conditions for journalists in China still do not meet international standards, and the club has recorded 157 incidents this year in which foreign reporters were detained, beaten, followed, given official reprimands or had their sources intimidated.

It's understood among foreign correspondents here that any attempt to delve into sensitive topics, or to cover controversial events such as relocations or demonstrations, will be met with harassment. Reporters have been shoved into police cars and taken to detention centers, subjected to hours of questioning, threatened with expulsion.

When a New York Times team went to Guangdong province recently to see the factory where Thomas the Tank Engine toys had been coated with toxic lead paint, factory officials held the reporter, photographer and Chinese assistant for more than nine hours while demanding that they hand over photographs taken inside the plant and "confess" to trespassing. Eventually, the three were released after writing a statement saying the photos had been taken without authorization.

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