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BEIJING 2008

IOC officials criticize China

'We don't want to see this happening again,' the committee says after a British reporter is detained briefly.

August 15, 2008|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — China came under criticism from the International Olympic Committee on Thursday after a British reporter was dragged away by police and detained for 20 minutes while covering a protest.

China pledged to provide open access for foreign news media as a condition for winning the right to host the 2008 Olympics. In addition to the Wednesday incident, security officials in recent weeks roughed up Hong Kong reporters covering a ticket stampede in Beijing and Japanese journalists reporting on a bombing in the far western province of Xinjiang.

"The IOC does disapprove of any attempts to hinder a journalist who is going about doing his job seemingly within the rules and regulations," Giselle Davies, a spokeswoman for the committee, said at a news conference Thursday. "This, we hope, has been addressed. We don't want to see this happening again."

The incident occurred when John Ray, 44, of London-based ITV News was rushing to cover a Tibet protest at the Chinese Ethnic Culture Park, south of the main Olympic stadium. Ray later said that a small struggle ensued as police officers forced him to the ground and dragged him before eventually letting him show his media credentials.

China also pledged unfettered access to the Internet as a condition for the Games. Though it eventually under pressure stopped blocking some websites, including that of the human rights group Amnesty International, several others remain impeded. In defending its policy, the government has said it considers the access "sufficient."

China, with its controlled commercial press and state-run media, has struggled to deal with the shock of having 20,000 foreign journalists on its soil who work under a very different system. In some ways, it has been surprising that more incidents haven't occurred given that gap.

Though the central government has almost certainly instructed lower-level officials not to manhandle foreign journalists, local police and party secretaries are used to having wide latitude to "maintain order."

Zhan Jiang, head of the media department at the China Youth College for Political Science in Beijing, said he hadn't heard of the Ray case. If it's true, he said, China should handle it deftly and apologize, as it did after the Japanese journalists in Xinjiang were roughed up.

Increasingly, China views the news media, at least in theory, as a public policy instrument rather than the absolute Communist Party mouthpiece that it was under Chairman Mao Tse-tung, Chinese analysts say. A mandate that the media support itself financially in recent years has also forced local outlets to produce more interesting and controversial content, albeit within limits.

Zhan said there had been encouraging signs. President Hu Jintao in a June 20 speech told officials to pay attention to foreign coverage of the Olympics and Chinese government behavior. And Hu also gave his first news conference to foreign journalists this month after six years on the job.

"There are changes," Zhan said. "But it's going to take time."

Still, many areas remain out of bounds for Chinese media, limits the foreign press is obviously not willing to accept.

China also vowed to improve its human rights record as a condition for hosting the Games, another area in which critics say it has fallen short.

The IOC has soft-pedaled many Chinese press and human rights violations, even as China has used the Olympics to justify its restrictive security measures. Some have termed this a marriage of convenience.

IOC spokeswoman Davies was asked repeatedly Thursday whether the IOC was embarrassed that China was falling short of its pledges, but she responded by saying only that the group was pleased with China's handling of the sports events.

Police detained, interrogated and eventually deported the eight protesters Ray was trying to cover Wednesday after they unfurled a "Free Tibet" banner and chained themselves to bicycles, according to Students for a Free Tibet, the group that organized the protest.

The Beijing Olympics organizing committee defended the country's policy on demonstrations, saying China respected free speech and had set up designated protest zones away from the sports venues.

Under international pressure, the government announced last month that it would set up three protest zones during the Olympics in Beijing parks. But China also stipulated that potential protesters must register five days in advance and wait up to three days for approval. Despite repeated questioning, the organizing committee has declined to say how many protest permits have been granted, if any.

Chinese activists have expressed concern that any Chinese who protest could face retribution later. New York-based Human Rights Watch said this week that a Chinese man who applied, Ji Sizun, was taken away by security guards.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said foreigners do not understand.

"Chinese citizens, in accordance with the law, enjoy the freedom of speech and other kinds of rights and freedoms," Qin Gang said at a news conference.

China has repeatedly said it has a different definition of human rights than many in the West, and that elevating its population from poverty is also a fundamental human right.

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

Times staff writer Gary Ambrose contributed to this report.

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