Reporters Without Borders today accused China of breaking its promises to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) by preventing foreign journalists from freely covering the journey of the Olympic flame through Xinjiang and Tibet.
Only a few were allowed to go to Kashgar, Urumqi and Lhasa, and they were forbidden to talk to local people. The authorities also used the passage of the flame through these sensitive regions to mount a new propaganda campaign despite the government saying, like the IOC, that the Games must not be politicised.
”The Olympic flame relay journey has never been such a trumped-up operation where local people have been told to stay indoors because they are seen as a threat,” the worldwide press freedom organisation said. “And never have foreign journalists been so restricted in reporting on an event that has been outrageously politicised by the Chinese government.
“Yet the IOC remains silent in the face of this new violation of the Olympic Charter by Chinese officials using the Olympic flame to justify political repression,” it said.
Only about 50 foreign journalists were allowed to report on the passage of the flame through Lhasa on 21 June and nearly half of them were from media outlets in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan who were handpicked by the Chinese government. International news agencies and some TV stations with rights to broadcast the Beijing Games were allowed two days in Lhasa. Other parts of Tibet have been closed to foreigners for more than three months. No US or British daily paper was allowed in.
When they got to Lhasa, foreign reporters were barred from going to the Jokhang temple in the old part of the city and instead guided to Potala and the Sera monastery. "A large number of uniformed and plainclothes police filmed our every move and there were very few monks we could talk to and question,” one journalist told Reporters Without Borders.
Journalists were kept in a park opposite the old summer residence of the Dalai Lama where the flame set out from. They were not allowed to follow the flame, go into the old city or talk to local people. Official guides also tried to deceive journalists about the situation in Lhasa. One Canadian reporter who asked why all shops were shut as the flame passed through the city was told that shops in Tibet were always closed on a Saturday (21 June). What is not true.
"The passage of the flame was a sad affair,” said another journalist. “Those watching were chosen by the authorities, police lined the whole route and there were military checkpoints throughout the city.”
Website access in China to some of the reports filed by foreign journalists, such as the reporter of Canada’s Globe and Mail, was later blocked by the authorities.
Officials in Xinjiang strictly supervised the activities of foreign journalists allowed to report on the passage of the flame through Kashgar and Urumqi. Despite promises made to foreign media, reporters were banned from speaking to the local Uighur population at the roadside.
“Don’t worry, we’re still giving you freedom to report,” one official told a Reuters news agency journalist in Kashgar on 18 June. The few reporters present were surrounded by police who stopped them leaving the security area. The Xinjiang authorities even printed a guide for foreign journalists saying that if there was a sudden event, meaning demonstrations, they would be asked to leave at once.
As in Lhasa, those allowed to see the flame pass were Han and Uighur people chosen by the authorities, who had asked most people to keep off the streets and to watch the passage of the flame on TV.
Government-controlled media coverage included harsh comments, such as the Tibetan Communist Party chief’s attack on “the Dalai Lama clique” that he said had to be destroyed. “The red flag with its five stars will always fly above Tibet,” he said.
One Tibetan official said most of the 1,300 people arrested after the demonstrations in March had been released, but there was no way to verify this. The authorities said an Amnesty International report on the imprisonment of more than 1,000 Tibetans did not have“an ounce of credibility.
The Chinese official media said the passage of the flame through Lhasa was a success from the security point of view and the Xinhua news agency said people were joyous and peaceful. The official search-engine Sohu said the flame’s journey had been a big success in Lhasa after arriving from Mount Everest. Government TV broadcast special programmes boasting about China’s economic development of Tibet but showed no film of military police present as the flame passed through Lhasa and Kashgar.
Several foreign journalists in Beijing told Reporters Without Borders that the recent claim in the official paper China Daily by Liu Qi, head of the official 2008 Olympics website BOCOG, that no request for interviews would be refused was false. Liu said the government would step up its propaganda before the Games so as to “create favourable public opinion.” One French journalist said there were more press conferences but face-to-face interviews with officials had become hard to obtain in recent months.