When the Summer Olympic Games open in Beijing two years from today, on 8 August 2008, neither the Beijing Organising Committee (BOCOG) nor the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will be in a position to guarantee that the thousands of journalists covering the event will be able move about freely or write what they think, although the Chinese authorities promised they would.
Reporters Without Borders is outraged that, 730 days before the start of the Beijing Games, the Chinese authorities are able to continue a crackdown on the press with virtually nothing being said by the IOC or the national Olympic committees. Nothing seems capable of eliciting a reaction from the Olympic bodies, not even restrictions on the foreign press.
"This silence allows the Chinese government to shamelessly continue its massive human rights violations," Reporters Without Borders said. "Already marred by corruption, the preparation of the games has been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, which officials say is necessary to make sure they are safe." The press freedom organisation also fears that all the surveillance and crowd-control equipment that China has bought from US, Israeli and French companies to ensure security at the games, will afterwards be used for repression.
As part of the preparations for the Games, the Chinese government has established an arsenal of laws and regulations that impose very strict content control on journalists, website editors and bloggers. There is no guarantee that the Chinese and international public will get unrestricted and impartial coverage of the Beijing Games.
For example, current regulations, which were reinforced in April by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), ban the Chinese media from using foreign news agency video footage without government permission. Under these circumstances, disinformation by the Chinese media before and during the games is inevitable.
So the sadly unforgettable scenarios of Berlin in 1936 and Moscow in 1980 could easily be played out again in Beijing.
Further and further
The prolonged detention of New York Times researcher Zhao Yan and Straits Times correspondent Ching Cheong have shown that journalists working for the Chinese press are not the only targets of the crackdowns. The government also turns its sights on the foreign media whenever they do anything to upset it.
The foreign journalists who are based in China or come on visits continue to be subject to police control. Everyone is aware of the surveillance, including the phone tapping. One might have expected China to keep its promise to the IOC to guarantee the media’s freedom of movement. But this has not happened.
"In no other major country is there so much control over foreign journalists," says Jonathan Watts of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China. Dozens of foreign journalists - both visitors and those based there - are detained, threatened or attacked each year. "We are unable to give an exact figure at the moment, somewhere between 50 and 100 a year, but the number of journalists prevented from working by force is a problem that should be raised at the highest level," says Watts. The Foreign Correspondents Club still lacks official recognition and therefore has no premises of its own in Beijing.
The Chinese foreign ministry refuses to make any changes to the Foreign Correspondents Guide, which says any journalist must request prior permission before leaving Beijing to cover something in the interior. Georg Blume, the correspondent of the weekly Die Zeit, was detained for five hours by the Chinese police last month while looking into the building of a dam in the southern province of Yunnan. He was forced to destroy some of his notes and sign a statement undertaking to leave the area.
The deplorable practice of blacklisting journalists has still not been abolished. For example Le Monde retired correspondent Jean-Claude Buhrer, who resides in Switzerland, has been banned from entering China because of his articles about Tibet.
The Chinese police continue to jail, attack or intimidate Chinese citizens who talk to the foreign press. The most dramatic recent case was that of Fu Xiancai, an activist on behalf of people displaced by the Three Gorges dam. He has been left paralysed by an attack that took place after he left a police station where he had been threatened for giving an interview to a German TV station. The official enquiry into the attack concluded that Fu inflicted the injuries on himself in order to appear to be victim.
Faster and faster
The increase in control of Internet content means there is little hope that Internet users and online journalists will be able to offer much of an alternative to all the propaganda that will be deployed to the full during the Games. Censorship and self-censorship are the rule on the Chinese Internet and the authorities recently launched a wave of website closures that have included China Century and Polls.
Freedom of expression declined sharply on the Chinese Internet after new regulations were issued in September 2005 by the Council of State’s information bureau and by the ministry of industry and information. Condemned by many Chinese intellectuals and journalists, these "11 Commandments of the Chinese Internet" have led to the closure of dozens of news websites for violating the constitution, hurting China’s reputation, spreading rumours or on other pretexts.
There is concern that the arrests of bloggers, cyber-dissidents and Internet users will increase on the eve of the Games. Around 50 are currently detained, some of them serving sentences of more than 10 years in prison.
Higher and higher
At President Hu Jintao’s behest, the ruling Communist Party’s Publicity Department (the former Propaganda Department) has reined in several Chinese media that were considered too liberal. The Beijing News daily was targeted first. Then the famous weekly Bing Dian’s editor, Li Datong, was fired.
The Chinese authorities had been expected to try to become more transparent before the Games. Instead, they are now planning to step up news censorship in times of crisis. A recent draft law provides for heavy fines for publishing unauthorised news reports about industrial accidents, natural disasters, public health catastrophes or social unrest. A senior Council of State official hinted that this censorship could also apply to the Hong Kong and foreign media. The bill would have a dramatic impact on public health and coverage of social issues, and has been criticised in many quarters.
If the bill is adopted, an epidemic or industrial accident taking place before or during the 2008 Games could go completely uncovered.
Other repressive measures have been adopted in recent months. In May, for example, lawyers were threatened with reprisals by the bar association if they gave information to foreign journalists about sensitive matters such as political prisoners.
Despite China’s undertakings to the World Trade Organisation, the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) decided in April to step up controls over illegal foreign publications and to freeze the granting of publication licences to joint-ventures. The media are accused of disrupting the market and of having a "negative impact on the public." So it is hard to imagine how the foreign media would be able to have a presence in the Chinese market in 2008.
Two years to act
As a matter of urgency, the IOC, national Olympic committees, governments and journalists’ organisations should all start pressing the Chinese authorities for concrete progress. Reporters Without Borders proposes 10 urgent measures:
1. Release journalists and Internet users detained in China for exercising their right to information.
2. Repeal article 15 of the Foreign Correspondents Guide, which restricts the freedom of movement of foreign journalists.
3. Withdraw censorship measures from the draft law about the management of crisis situations.
4. Disband the Publicity Department (the former Propaganda Department), which exercises daily control over content in the Chinese press.
5. End the jamming of foreign radio stations.
6. End the blocking of thousands of news and information websites based abroad.
7. Suspend the "11 Commandments of the Internet," which lead to content censorship and self-censorship on websites.
8. Scrap the blacklists of journalists and human rights activists who are banned from visiting China.
9. Withdraw the ban on Chinese TV stations using foreign news agency video footage without permission.
10. Legalize independent organisations of journalists and human rights activists.
In 2001, Reporters Without Borders launched www.boycottbeijing2008.net in 2001.