The issue of the freedom of expression of athletes participating in the Beijing Summer Olympics was addressed by International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge at the meeting of the executive committee of the European Olympic Committees (EOC) on 20 February.
An EOC official told Reporters Without Borders that Rogge said the Olympic Charter should be applied to the full as regards its ban on any propaganda activity by athletes at Olympic venues. But Rogge added that there was no question of restricting their right to free speech outside the venues.
The IOC has sent a memo to all the national Olympic committees reminding them of this principle and asked them consult its communications department in the event of any conflict on this issue.
Reporters Without Borders and Article 19 have written jointly to the heads of all the national Olympic committees in Europe and to Pat Hickey, the president of the European Olympic Committees (EOC), on the eve of an EOC meeting on 20 February 2008 in Lausanne.
"Do we not have a right to expect a joint undertaking from the executive committee to impose no restriction on the freedom of speech of European athletes going to Beijing ?" the letter asks. "The Olympic Charter is already sufficiently precise in this regard and does not permit national Olympic committees to introduce new bans".
"The British Olympic Association’s attempt to limit the right of athletes to express their views on ’any sensitive political issue’ during the Beijing games was a regrettable initiative and we welcome its subsequent U-turn", the letter continues. "We also hail the initiatives taken by several Olympic committees such as those of Sweden and Norway, which are going to brief their athletes about the human rights situation in China".
In their letters, Reporters Without Borders and Article 19 urge the European Olympic committees to declare unambiguously that statements about human rights do not fall within the scope of Article 51(3) of the Olympic Charter and that NOCs and other members of the Olympic Movement should not attempt to restrict athletes’ right to freedom expression, whether explicitly or implicitly.
“Olympic athletes should not be deterred from giving sincere and honest responses to journalists’ questions or from making comments on the situation of human rights in China or other countries out of fear that those statements will affect their sportive careers in any way. Athletes and NOCs need to understand this and that Article 51(3) in no way justifies restricting athletes’ right to make such statements".
Reporters without Borders and Article 19 also call on the European Olympic Committees to "get to grips" with the issue of human rights in China. "When Beijing was awarded the 2008 Olympics in Moscow in 2001, the Chinese authorities promised improvements in human rights and ’complete press freedom’. We are very disturbed to see that the Olympic movement is unable to get the Chinese government to keep these promises".
"Seven years later, China has not seen any lasting improvement in free expression. Around 100 journalists, cyber-dissidents and free speech activists are currently in prison. The dissident Hu Jia was arrested just a few weeks ago for expressing his views on the human rights situation in the run-up to the Olympics. Like us, you know that it is unacceptable that Chinese citizens who are pressing for more freedom should be forced to watch the world’s greatest sports event from a prison cell".
"The International Olympic Committee’s continuing silence on all these issues is dramatic. The European Olympic Committees must behave differently and must become the guarantors of the humanist values enshrined in the Olympic Charter. Your committees must initiate this debate and take a position before next August. If nothing is done, the Olympic Games will be spoiled and marred by the deplorable situation of freedoms in China".
"Preventing athletes from talking about human rights abuses, contrary to their right to freedom of expression, violates the fundamental principles at the heart of the Olympic Charter, contradicts the spirit of the Olympic Games and amounts to condoning the human rights abuses committed by too many countries around the world, including China”.
"As you know, China’s government and Communist Party attach the utmost importance to the success of the Olympic Games. It is therefore not too late to get the organisers of the Beijing games to release prisoners of conscience and lift censorship".