Broadcasters hit China’s great wall of bureaucracy

The world’s broadcasters, including the BBC, and the IOC are pushing China to keep its promises and open up Tiananmen Square to more hours of live coverage for the Beijing Olympics.

Unfettered access to Tiananmen, site of the bloody crackdown on the 1989 democracy movement, is being used to gauge how far China’s communist government will go in granting press freedom, which it promised seven years ago to help win the Olympic bid.

In an emergency meeting last week in Beijing with the International Olympic Committee and broadcasters, Chinese officials — after months of hedging and leaving the critical question unanswered — decided live broadcasting from Tiananmen would be limited to two time slots — 6-10am and 9-11pm

Chinese officials also finally agreed to give hundreds of satellite trucks freedom to roam around the city and report, but a list of restricted areas is expected this week. And there are reports broadcasters will have to get permission 24 hours before filming from a location.

This comes after promises of open coverage, which was followed months ago by a reported ban on any live coverage.

“We have the words, it’s in writing as well. We will just have to wait and see,” said Tomoyo Igaya, senior programme director for Japan’s NHK Sports and head of the Japan consortium, an Olympic pool that represents NHK and five Japanese commercial broadcasters. “People say yes, yes, yes, but will people on site be saying no, no, no?”

China’s government wants the Olympics to showcase the country’s three decades to speedy economic progress. But the government fears the Games could be a stage for activists set on embarrassing China over policies in Tibet and Darfur, religious and political freedom or the jailing of dissidents.

The iconic square, with its recent bloody history and featuring a massive portrait of Chairman Mao, is exactly what every broadcaster, rights holder or not, wants to beam around the world — no matter what time of day.

“Why can’t we broadcast freely during the day?” asked Fernando Pardo, head of sports for the European Broadcasting Union. “Why don’t we have a normal timetable as was promised in the beginning? The Chinese didn’t give a clear answer, only excuses.”

Last week’s decision leaves European broadcasters without a time slot for delivering live coverage from Tiananmen to the all-important evening news audience. China is seven hours ahead of Britain. “Both slots are totally useless for us,” Pardo said.

The early morning time slot on Tiananmen suits NBC, the American network which has paid millions for its Olympic rights and which will be able to go live to its prime-time evening audience. Beijing organizers and the IOC also moved swimming and gymnastics finals to the morning, giving NBC live evening coverage in the United States.

The Associated Press obtained the minutes to the July 9 meeting in Beijing, attended by Beijing Vice Mayor Cai Fuchao, senior IOC member Hein Verbruggen and dozens of rights-holding broadcast officials.

Several broadcasters attending confirmed Alex Gilady (IOC member for Israel and a senior vice-president of NBC Sports) aggressively pushed Cai over the scant live air time from Tiananmen. “I think as a representative of the IOC TV commission, I have to try and follow what the broadcasters want — and they want more time,” Gilady said. “So we have asked for more. We will to see what the Chinese come up with.”

Last week’s agreement also prohibits broadcasters from bringing guests to Tiananmen Square for live interviews, allowing only “standup talent” to speak from the iconic venue. Taped interviews will be allowed, but only when security officials give permission.

“Why is Tiananmen limited to certain hours?” asked Sandy MacIntyre, director of news for AP Television News. “This is not acceptable and is against the spirit of the Olympics, and the spirit of free expression that China signed up to in accepting to be hosts for the Games.”

Sun Weijia, the head of media operations for the organising committee, attended the July 9 meeting, along with organizing committee executive vice president Wang Wei. It was Wang who promised the following while leading Beijing’s bid in 2001: “We will give the media complete freedom to report when they come to China.”

In the four months since rioting broke out in Tibet — triggering protests on the Olympic torch relay — China’s government has given preference to rights-holders such as NBC. Several non-rights holders told of months of changing rules, police interference, repeated requests for licenses and permits and telephone calls going unanswered at a so-called “One-Stop Service Center” set up by Beijing organizers.

Others told of calls being answered, but only in Chinese — or calls being referred to another number, only to be referred back to the original number. Several said the endless bureaucratic run-around, a crackdown on visas and rising hotel costs, were discouraging many foreign journalists and sponsors from attending.

And if broadcasters don’t get what they expect, some rights-holders have hinted at seeking monetary compensation. Pardo of the EBU cited the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, where he said broadcasters received refunds for inadequate lodging.

“We got money back in Torino because the services provided were no existent,” Pardo said. “But here so far we don’t have any proof the services are not going to be given. … If we don’t get the services, the reaction of the broadcasters can be unpredictable.”

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