A large flag showing the Olympic rings transformed into handcuffs was unfurled outside the Liaison Office of the central people’s government of China in Hong Kong today by five Reporters Without Borders representatives, including secretary-general Robert Ménard, in a protest to mark Human Rights Day. Two days before Chinese authorities refused to give visas to members of the press freedom organisation.
“We had initially planned to stage this demonstration in Beijing, but the authorities refused to give us visas,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We know that some of us are blacklisted by the Chinese immigration services (photo below). At a time when the government is compiling files on foreign journalists and human rights activists in advance of the Olympic Games, this refusal is evidence of its determination to keep critics at a distance.
“The Chinese authorities are clearly not prepared to let people remind them of the undertakings they gave to improve the situation of human rights and, in particular, press freedom when they were awarded the 2008 Olympics in 2001.
“We have to do something as we are just eight months away from the start of the Olympic Games. In view of the International Olympic Committee’s silence and the Chinese government’s refusal to keep its promise to improve respect for rights and freedoms, we have a duty to draw attention to the disastrous situation for free speech in China. The Chinese government must take firm action before the games, starting with the release of the hundred or so detained journalists and cyber-dissidents.”
Reporters Without Borders added : “We are not trying to spoil a major sports event, but who will be able to say these games have been a success when thousands of prisoners of conscience languish in Chinese jails overshadowed by these sports stadiums ? Who will be able to believe in the ‘One World, One Dream’ slogan of these games when Tibetan and Uyghur minorities are subject to serious discrimination ?”
The five Reporters Without Borders activists unfurled the 15-square-metre flag outside the Chinese government’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong at 2.30 p.m. local time. The image on the flag, the Olympic rings transformed into handcuffs, and the accompanying words, “Beijing 2008,” refer to the terrible situation of free expression in China.
In a previous protest, four Reporters Without Borders representatives, including its president, Fernando Castello, its vice-president, Rubina Möhring, and Ménard gave an unauthorised news conference outside the building of the Olympic Games Organising Committee, the BOCOG, in Beijing on 6 August. They were arrested later the same day at their hotel and escorted to the airport.
The world’s biggest prison for journalists
China is the world’s biggest prison for journalists (33 detained), cyber-dissidents (49 detained) and free speech activists. In all, about 100 of them are currently serving prison sentences in appalling conditions after being convicted on charges of “subversion” or “disseminating state secrets.”
Although the Chinese media, now subject to the law of the market, have been evolving rapidly, the Propaganda Department and the political police continue to monitor, censor and arrest recalcitrant journalists.
In January, the authorities eased the regulations governing the work of foreign journalists because of this year’s Olympics. Since then there have nonetheless been at least 60 cases of police detaining, manhandling or otherwise obstructing foreign correspondents in the course of their work. In one recent case, a Swiss TV reporter was hit and detained for seven hours by officials in a village near Beijing.
After Beijing had just been awarded the 2008 Games in Moscow in 2001, a representative of the Beijing Candidate Committee said : “By entrusting the organisation of the Olympic Games to Beijing , you will help the development of human rights.” Six year later, Reporters Without Borders has not seen any durable improvement in press freedom or online free expression.
Chinese journalists continue to push back the limits of censorship but the authorities monitor and punish the most critical ones. In November, the Propaganda Department banned the Chinese media from carrying “negative” stories on matters such as air pollution, a dispute over Taiwan’s inclusion in the Olympic torch relay, and public health issues.
The Internet is also controlled. Chinese Internet users are prevented from accessing thousands of news websites based abroad. Chinese cyber-police and cyber-censors scrutinise online content looking for criticism. Around 20 companies, some of them American, had to sign a “self-disciplinary pledge” in August undertaking to censor the blogs they host in China and to ask bloggers to reveal their real identity.
The IOC’s silent complicity
All over the world, concern is growing about what is happening with the 2008 games, which are being exploited by a government that refuses to take action to guarantee freedom of expression and respect the Olympic Charter’s humanistic values.
Reporters Without Borders has written several letters to IOC president Jacques Rogge asking him to intervene. He has never replied personally, but his close aides regularly point out the IOC is not a “political” organisation and cannot put pressure on a “sovereign state.”
The IOC is constantly trumpeting the progress being made with the work on the Beijing games infrastructure but it has not made any public statement of concern about the lack of freedom of expression, which will undermine the work of the media and the transparency that is needed for the games.
In a letter to Rogge on 29 November, Reporters Without Borders wrote : “It is your silence that has unfortunately made all these abuses possible. We continue to think that the IOC should do everything it can to influence the policies of the Beijing games organisers towards Chinese and foreign journalists. A failure to rise to this key challenge would represent an enormous setback in the history of the Olympic movement.”