With a little over to a week until the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony, concerns surrounding the long-promised press freedoms at the Games in China are growing, following reports of physical attacks on reporting media, censorship of the internet service provided for the press in Beijing and the withdrawal of an invitation to a senior BBC employee.
Lorna Ball, head of BBC Chinese, had expected to be a guest of China Radio International (CRI), the state broadcaster, at the ceremony in Beijing on August 8, but has had her invitation withdrawn according to a report in The Guardian today.
The Chinese government has long viewed the BBC’s Cantonese and Mandarin-language services with suspicion, and the invitation withdrawal came on the same day that Amnesty International published a report saying that freedoms in China are now more limited than when the International Olympic Committee awarded the Games to Beijing in 2001.
BBC Chinese suffers “interference” that prevents listeners in China accessing its content, which some believe to be the result of deliberate jamming by the authorities. The BBC website is blocked by official media monitors in China.
“By continuing to persecute and punish those who speak out on human rights, the Chinese authorities have lost sight of the promises they made when they were granted the Games seven years ago,” Roseann Rife, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific deputy director, said yesterday.
“The Chinese are tarnishing the legacy of the Games. They must release all imprisoned peaceful activists, allow foreign and national journalists to report freely and make further progress towards the elimination of the death penalty.”
Beijing’s bid to host the Games assured the IOC that media would have “complete freedom to report”. But websites dealing with political and human-rights issues – including Amnesty International’s site – were being blocked in Beijing’s Main Press Center.
“My preoccupation and responsibility is to ensure that the Games competitions are reported openly to the world,” said Kevan Gosper, the head of the IOC’s press commission. “The regulatory changes we negotiated with BOCOG and which required Chinese legislative changes were to do with reporting on the Games. This didn’t necessarily extend to free access and reporting on everything that relates to China.”
According to Reuters, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said media should be able to access the internet but sites related to Falun Gong, the spiritual movement China considers a cult, would be blocked. He suggested that difficulties accessing certain websites could be the fault of the sites themselves.
Despite BOCOG and IOC assurances, international media in China have complained of harassment by officials and Human Rights Watch released a report earlier this month saying China was not living up to its pledges.
Several Hong Kong-based media have reported being attacked and detained this week while going about their normal news-gathering business in the Chinese capital, filming or photographing Beijing citizens queuing for Olympic tickets.
C M Yeung, of Now TV, says he was attacked by bystanders while filming a queue dispute. Police, who refused to intervene, instead demanded that footage of the incident be deleted and that Yeung and his colleague, Melanie Chau, should sign a form agreeing that the matter was now closed. They refused to do so.
The day before Yeung was pulled backwards off a ladder by police while filming ticket queues. In a separate incident that day, F C Law of Hong Kong’s Cable News TV, was pushed to the ground by police during a scuffle after police claimed that journalists had strayed outside the “permitted reporting zone.”
A cameraman from TVB, another Hong Kong broadcaster, who attempted to film the incident, had his footage confiscated while Felix Wong, a photographer for the South China Morning Post, was briefly detained.
The International Federation of Journalists has been quick to condemn the treatment of journalists in Beijing, though other international sports journalism bodies have so far been silent.
The Athletes’ and Media Villages opened this week, and the Main Press Center and International Broadcast Center are already teeming with some of the more than 20,000 media accredited to cover the event.
“As I’ve said before, this is a country that does have censorship within its media, but we’ve been guaranteed free access, open media activity for media reporting on the Olympic Games at Games time,” the IOC’s Gosper said during a tour of the facilities. “We are now in Games time.”
Gosper also said that there had been complaints that the internet service provided for media was too slow. “We’re looking into that and we’ve tracked that information into BOCOG immediately because free access to the internet also means normal speed,” he said. Some web authorities suggest that Chinese authorities may monitor in-coming and out-going internet activity from the international press.