"I think we will give the media complete freedom to report when they come to China." That was Wang Wei, secretary general of the Beijing Olympics organizing committee, after his country won its bid in 2001.
Cheering! Rousing applause!
"I don't anticipate there will be any constraint," said Kevan Gosper, head of the International Olympic Committee's press commission, in April. "They should have free access to the Internet."
"My preoccupation and responsibility is to ensure that the Games' competitions are reported openly to the world," Gosper said July 29. But he added that the freedom to report "didn't necessarily extend to free access and reporting on everything that relates to China."
Some confused clapping.
"I have also been advised that some of the IOC officials had negotiated with the Chinese that some sensitive sites would be blocked," Gosper said the next day.
Yes, when reporters logged in at the Beijing Olympics' main press center last week and found that dozens of humanitarian and media websites were digitally gagged -- including, in some instances, the ones they worked for -- they learned a civics lesson that a billion Chinese already knew: Silence is golden.
Despite a string of pyrite promises by both Chinese representatives and the IOC, Internet access at the Olympics was cratered with blacked-out sites, including Amnesty International, the L.A. Times Olympics Blog and Wikipedia (which left, what, MySpace and online backgammon?).
Rob Faris of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society called China's approach puzzling. "Providing a large number of journalists with a censored Internet connection when they were promised an open Internet is naturally going to draw a lot of critical stories in the media," he said.
And so it has. It seemed that every major U.S. newspaper and broadcast network had its own story on China's "Great Firewall," many stating how outrageous it was that Western media should have its information controlled by an oppressive regime.
"I'm just disappointed and frustrated," said one journalist interviewed on "NBC Nightly News." Said another: "I can't rely on getting all the information I need."
But NBC missed the obvious irony: The censored Internet was giving journalists a taste of what the Chinese people live with -- or without -- every day.
Big Brother's watching
Examples of China's information tampering are virtually inexhaustible. In October, Reuters reported that when a Taiwanese iPod factory was discovered to be mistreating workers, some websites were sent text messages warning them not to write about the story -- "so that it is not exploited by those who want independence." In February, China asked domestic websites to boycott "decadent, backwards thoughts and culture," in favor of "beneficial audio-visual programmes meeting socialist norms." And in the aftermath of the May earthquake, which killed nearly 70,000 people, China acted to squelch talk of shoddy school construction and rescue efforts while urging the media to "emphasize positive propaganda."
Perhaps anticipating similar requests last week, foreign media camped in Beijing did some positive propaganda emphasis of their own. After China reacted to the uproar by unblocking a number of high-profile sites, including those of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Chinese BBC, journalists seemed more than satisfied. Headlines began to say things like "Web Curbs Lifted" (Reuters), "China Lifts More Internet Curbs" (BBC) and "China Takes a More Open Stance With Foreign Press" (Wall Street Journal).
The IOC, no doubt desperate to move past the scandal, released a statement saying, "The media should be seeing a noticeable difference in accessibility to websites that they need to report on the Olympic Games."
Open Internet access, it continued, "has always been assured by [the Beijing organizing committee] and the Chinese authorities, and the IOC is pleased to see these reassurances being upheld."
But both the IOC and the international media failed miserably to note that hundreds if not thousands of sites remained unavailable to both journalists and Beijing residents. And not just "sensitive" sites relating to the Falun Gong movement, Tibet or Tiananmen Square. Huge personal and professional blogging platforms remained inaccessible. TypePad -- home of many news blogs, including most of The Times' -- was unavailable, as was LiveJournal, one of the largest diary sites. MSN's Taiwan site was blocked, as were U.S. portals such as the Philadelphia Inquirer and Huffington Post.
Curious readers can experiment for themselves. An online status monitoring site called WebSitePulse.com has a "China Firewall test" tool, which lets you input a site's address to see if it's working in Beijing. Whatever that tool reveals to be blocked, it appears, is also blocked in the Olympic press center (a colleague at the Games tried 10 random sites I gave him from inside the center, and the results matched the WebSitePulse test).