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Repressive Hosts Tarnish the Olympic Image

By Kristin Jones and Nina Ognianova

Sochi, a Russian resort city that sidles up to the Black Sea, is preparing to give the world an eyeful in the Winter Olympics of 2014. Figure skating fans are already speculating on Kim Yu-na's chances for another gold. Lindsey Vonn has tested the ski terrain, and Russians are pinning hopes on their hockey team's chances in the new Bolshoy Ice Dome. But all that is yet to come. In 2012, the dominant image from Russia for many global audiences was a glass cage confining members of the feminist punk rock band Pussy Riot, on trial for "hooliganism" in connection with their protest against President Vladimir Putin. Three band members were convicted, and two were sent in October to remote prison camps.

A clock counts down to the 2014 Olympics in Russia. (AP/Igor Yakunin)

These competing images present a challenge not only for the organizers of Russia's first Olympics in the post-Soviet era, but also for the International Olympic Committee, or IOC. In Beijing, the IOC found itself in the crosshairs for a summer Olympic Games whose gleaming success was set on a stage of tired repression. The contrast renewed debate over the role of human rights and the free exchange of information in granting and organizing a prestigious international event like the Olympics: Does the IOC have an obligation to hold host governments to account for repression, censorship, and human rights abuses? Can host-city obligations to allow news media the freedom to report on the Games be met in an environment in which journalists' physical safety is threatened or dissent is silenced?

In Russia, a crackdown on free expression and a strong anti-foreign climate threaten another collision with the Olympic goals of peace and mutual respect, and the guarantees of media freedom to report on the Games. And the debate is not limited to Sochi. Among the three finalists to host the 2020 Summer Olympics is Istanbul, where a government anti-terrorism campaign has lately landed dozens of journalists in jail and put serious constraints on the free flow of information. The IOC will have an opportunity when it chooses the 2020 host, and again when it negotiates its contract with the organizers, to take a stronger stance on these issues.


The Olympic Charter, a foundational document at the heart of the Games, sets out goals much broader than simply holding sports competitions. The charter espouses "social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental principles." The Olympic goal, as the charter puts it, "is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity." It says any person or organization belonging to the Olympic movement--including national Olympic committees and host-city organizing committees--"is bound by the provisions of the Olympic Charter and shall abide by the decisions of the IOC."

Among the principles enshrined in the Olympic Charter is media freedom. "The IOC takes all necessary steps in order to ensure the fullest coverage by the different media and the widest possible audience in the world for the Olympic Games," Rule 48 of the charter decrees. "All decisions concerning the coverage of the Olympic Games by the media rest within the competence of the IOC."

Olympic officials say they take these objectives seriously. "The International Olympic Committee strongly believes that the Olympic Games are, above all, a force for good, which can have a positive impact on the social development of a country," IOC spokesman Mark Adams told CPJ. However, being a force for good "does not mean the Olympic Games are a panacea for all ills and can solve all of the world's problems," Adams said, reaffirming statements made by IOC president Jacques Rogge in Beijing that the IOC is not a political body.

When it comes to media freedom, the IOC has, at least publicly, limited its involvement to those journalists specifically accredited to report on the Games. "The media were able to report freely from Beijing during the Games," Adams said. And few would argue that China starved them of the most striking competitive moments, such as Usain Bolt's world-record 100-meter sprint. But this approach underestimates the extent to which journalists--foreign or domestic, accredited or not--share an ecosystem. "It's not possible just to guarantee the right to report on sporting events" and not other news, said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. "That's not even a wall that can be enforced."

The thousands of journalists who traveled to Beijing for the sole purpose of covering the Olympic Games felt the immediate effect of censorship. They arrived to find that they couldn't retrieve some news, information, or opinions, including from some international outlets, because certain websites were blocked--as they are for everyone in China. "It was an unprofessional working environment," Worden said, "and the IOC was responsible for that."

More crucially, between July 2001, when the IOC granted Beijing host city status, and August 2008, when the Games started, China jailed dozens of domestic journalists, fired or demoted progressive editors, and suppressed critical coverage. CPJ met twice with IOC officials to relay concerns about censorship and the treatment of journalists, but they made clear to CPJ that this was not their problem. "It is not within our mandate to act as an agent for concerned groups," Olympic Games Executive Director Gilbert Felli told CPJ in Lausanne in 2006.

Just before the Games, mainland journalists received a 21-point set of do-not-report instructions, including a specific edict not to report on food safety issues, Hong Kong's South China Morning Post said at the time. This was deadly timing. In September, after the Games were over, Chinese media broke the news that infant formula and other dairy products sold across the country were contaminated with melamine, an industrial chemical. Six infants died, and more than 50,000 infants and young children were hospitalized, the World Health Organization said later. A functioning local press could have prevented the tragedy; the first complaints had come as early as June.

In the run-up to the Games, the government also promised to give international correspondents greater latitude. On paper, the authorities relaxed travel restrictions in January 2007; foreign journalists were told they no longer needed advance permission from provincial authorities to conduct every interview, and that they were free to visit "places open to foreigners designated by the Chinese government." Nonetheless, international reporters continued to be harassed and occasionally detained, and they were blocked from reporting fully on protests, ethnic riots, and arrests in western China and Tibet.

And after the Games, local authorities returned to their more repressive ways, said Melinda Liu, who was president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China from 2005 to 2008. "Access became more unpredictable, and foreign correspondents increasingly found themselves turned away, detained, harassed, and relieved of documents or reporting paraphernalia," Liu said. "In the months and years after the Games, the pendulum swung back toward greater restriction of media access."


The conditions for Russia's press are in many ways different from the Chinese media environment. Rather than running up against official censorship or jail, Russian journalists have historically been more likely to face threats, attacks, and even murder for reporting on corruption or human rights abuses. Russia ranks ninth-worst worldwide on CPJ's Impunity Index, which spotlights countries where journalists are murdered regularly and killers go free. The apparent lack of will to prosecute attacks on journalists hints at a link between political power and criminality, and the climate of fear results in diminished investigative reporting.

The Games will be held at a time of narrowing freedom for domestic journalists and official suspicion of international actors. President Putin's third term in office kicked off in 2012 with the passage of restrictive laws as well as harassment and prosecution of dissenters, including the jailing of Pussy Riot. In July, Putin signed a new criminal defamation law--reversing a 2011 measure that had decriminalized the offense--and set a maximum fine of $150,000, a prohibitive amount for news outlets not affiliated with the state. The same month saw passage of a new Internet law allowing the authorities to block websites that meet vaguely defined criteria, such as "making war propaganda" and "inciting inter-ethnic hatred." The blacklist of websites will be in the hands of a government agency, and the new law gave rise to many questions about its technical and legal implementation. A third newly signed law requires nongovernmental organizations that receive funds from overseas to register as "foreign agents."

Also in 2012, Russia expelled international organizations, such as the United States Agency for International Development and UNICEF, the United Nations children's agency. In November, Putin signed legislation that broadened the definition of high treason and gave the authorities wide-ranging rights to criminally prosecute individuals who consult with foreigners. The law--which was introduced by the Federal Security Service, successor to the Soviet-era KGB--could spell trouble for local journalists who work for international media outlets.

As in China, Russian authorities have a tendency to squeeze the press in the name of national security. In Beijing, the Olympics empowered security agencies to act with fresh zeal against protesters and critical domestic journalists. "You could very easily see a similar thing happening in Russia," said Worden of Human Rights Watch.

Holding the Olympic Games does require intensive security efforts to protect the athletes and the thousands of other visitors. But in Russia, legitimate efforts to augment security have too often bled into attempts to suppress nonviolent critical voices. This is particularly true in the North Caucasus--a group of Russian republics near Sochi. The volatile region, where Russia has long fought a separatist movement, is plagued by violence committed both by armed guerrillas and Kremlin-supported local authorities. Fearing a popular uprising like the ones that toppled governments in Ukraine and Georgia and, most recently, in the Arab world, security forces have worked hard to shape public opinion. In recent months, Russian authorities have "inundated the Internet space with so-called news sources that portray the North Caucasus as a chaotic, lawless region" where violence is endemic, said Nadira Isayeva, former editor of the embattled Makhachkala-based newspaper Chernovik and a recipient of CPJ's International Press Freedom Award.

"Against this backdrop, any forceful actions by federal forces in the Caucasus can be justified easily as necessary to preserve calm in a dangerous, violent region," Isayeva said. At the same time, "the process of isolating and eliminating independent journalists and media outlets in the North Caucasus has been completed already," Isayeva said. A series of unsolved journalist murders has eviscerated the nonstate media, leaving no independent watchdog to monitor government or guerrilla action in the area. In at least two of the murders, suspicions have fallen on the administration of Chechnya, CPJ research shows.

In Sochi, Human Rights Watch has noted several abuses specifically related to the large-scale Olympic preparation, including forced evictions and demolitions, exploitation of workers employed to construct venues, and arrests of villagers who have protested the building of a massive power plant. Journalists and activists who have drawn attention to these issues have come under attack, the organization has reported.

Publicly, the IOC is sanguine about Sochi organizers' ability to grant complete media freedom in this context. "Sochi pledges, in its bid book, excellent working conditions for the media at the Games," Adams told CPJ. "It also promises the media an open dialogue with the Organizing Committee, so that their needs are met, in their words, 'openly, honestly, and promptly.'"

These promises may not inspire universal confidence, given recent history in Beijing. But, Worden said, there are important ways in which international Olympic organizers have shifted their stance since 2008. Human Rights Watch believes that its persistent, long-term engagement with the IOC and with key national Olympic committees and corporate sponsors has produced results. With an eye toward near-term impact in Sochi and long-term reform, Human Rights Watch participated in the 2009 Olympic Congress in Copenhagen, the first time a human rights group had done so, according to Worden. The organization also submitted a formal proposal for a standing IOC committee on human rights that would set and apply human rights benchmarks for potential Olympic hosts.

It took two years, but in September 2011, partially responding to the Human Rights Watch proposal, the IOC issued a set of commitments, including that "the IOC will intervene ... in the event of serious abuses, such as: mistreatment of people displaced due to Olympic venue construction; abuse of migrant workers at Olympic venue construction sites; child labor; improper restrictions on the media's freedom to cover the Games, including cultural aspects." Another commitment says that the IOC "will establish a system for correctly identifying and dealing with 'legitimate complaints' from official sources."

The IOC "has tons of power," Worden said. But it has to be persuaded to use it. Both "governments and the IOC are most responsive when their image risks being tarnished," she said. "This is why the role of the media is so crucial--it helps amplify the 'name and shame' strategy."


Organizing the Olympics carries significant benefits for the host, such as attracting economic revenue and boosting a country's global standing. In return, the IOC adopts a formal role in providing standards and making assessments. In this context, it already demands strict compliance to a host of requirements--many of them commercial, such as rules on branding, corporate contracts, and hotel and transportation prices.

The IOC's main mechanism for holding host cities to its very specific requirements comes in the form of a legally binding contract. In the case of the 2012 Games in London, this contract--made public through a Freedom of Information Act fight in the U.K.--consisted of a 47-page document stipulating London's broad responsibilities, along with lengthy technical manuals describing specific obligations in detail. The IOC has the right to exact financial penalties, in the form of withholding revenue, if the city or the national Olympic committee fails to comply.

The technical manuals are adjusted every few years for different cities and situations. A public version of the technical manual for written and photographic press--written in 2001 and amended in 2005--is 187 pages long. It includes detailed demands related to media accommodation, specifying, for instance, that 24-hour food catering services should provide at least one hot dish at all times. It requires that media transport be provided free and that Wi-Fi be available in all Olympic media locations. It gives the IOC ultimate authority on media accreditation, and contains specific language on local press access.

Some technical manuals contain specific dated milestones to be met. They also nod toward broader social goals with assurances like this one: "As a responsible organization, the IOC wants to ensure that host cities and residents are left with the best possible legacy in terms of venues, infrastructure, environment, expertise, and experience."

Through the host contract, the IOC already intervenes--broadly and in detail, with implied and explicit judgments, and with legal authority. The question is not whether it intervenes in media access and protection, but how. Hot meals are nice. But complete freedom to report--on the Games or on anything else of importance--hangs more crucially on whether the country's journalists are jailed for their work, whether the Internet is free, and whether independent media are allowed to survive.

Istanbul is one of three candidate cities for hosting the Summer Games in 2020, along with Tokyo and Madrid; the IOC will announce the winner in September 2013. When it is assessing the ability of the potential hosts to guarantee the media's freedom to cover the Games, the IOC would be making an incomplete evaluation if it didn't consider the broader media context. Over the past three years, Turkey has used vaguely worded penal code and anti-terror statutes to imprison dozens of journalists in retaliation for their work. With at least 49 in prison as of December 1, 2012, Turkey is the world's leading jailer of journalists, surpassing Iran and China. Many of the jailed have spent months, even years, in detention without a court verdict, kept in limbo by a judicial system in urgent need of fundamental reform.

At the same time, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has adopted a hostile attitude toward critical media, publicly chastising individual journalists and media outlets; instructing media owners to discipline critical reporters and commentators; suing columnists for defamation; and discouraging press coverage of the long-standing conflict between the Turkish military and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party. Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, a columnist with the Turkish daily Milliyet, told CPJ that Turkey has not yet had a debate about the Olympics in relation to freedom of expression. "While I think it is important to link Turkey's press freedom record to its overseas outreach and reception, such a link has not yet been made."

The IOC will have the chance to ask its bidders hard questions. How can Istanbul guarantee complete media freedom to cover the Games when its recent history suggests authorities' discomfort with a free press? Does it plan to extend this freedom to all domestic media, including long-persecuted Kurdish journalists? What steps will organizers take to ensure that Olympic-accredited journalists will be working in an environment in which information is unconstrained? And how do officials plan to handle the security measures that the Games may require without cracking down bluntly on civil society and the exchange of ideas?

Aydıntaşbaş said she and her colleagues would "welcome any outside intervention to remind Turkish leaders that their stifling of free speech and redesigning of the media is costing Turkey a lot. It is reducing the quality of our democracy and taking away from the 'prestige' they are keen on building."


The IOC's hesitance to promote human rights is partly in deference to the vast diversity of cultures represented in the Games, said Bruce Kidd, a professor of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto who has written extensively about the Olympics. The IOC "has intervened selectively. It's been slow, reluctant to push the fullest envelope of human rights," Kidd said. "That's largely because its overarching goal is to bring the world together for peaceful intercultural exchange. And if you create too high a bar, you can't get the whole world."

Kidd was an Olympic athlete himself. He competed as a distance runner in the 1964 Games in Tokyo, and has remained active in the Olympic movement. He's an honorary member of the Canadian Olympic Committee and was involved in preparing the bid for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010. Still, he believes that human rights and athletes' rights to expression and full participation took a beating in Beijing, while Olympic officials came out looking complicit. "As somebody who has identified with the Olympic movement, I was embarrassed," Kidd said.

Despite its professed policy of non-intervention, Kidd notes, the IOC historically has intervened when pushed--sometimes to great effect. He notes that an international campaign against apartheid forced the IOC to act--hesitantly at first, and then more forcefully--by expelling the National Olympic Committee of South Africa and preventing Olympic members from segregating sports by race, even on their own soil.

More recently, the IOC has publicly pushed its participating members to field female athletes and credited itself when each national team did so in London 2012. But its stance was the result of a hard-won fight waged first from the outside. A feminist organization called Atlanta Plus had few allies when it launched in the mid-1990s--when 35 national Olympic teams included no women.

Taking a more muscular, consistent stance on basic rights of expression would bolster the IOC's position, not erode it, Kidd said. More than a century after the start of the modern Olympic Games, he argues, the goal of bringing the world into the same tent has been met. More than 200 countries now participate in the Olympics, and the entire world has signaled support for the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.

"Now that everybody's there, let's gradually raise the bar," Kidd said. "One way to do this is to ensure the freest and fairest exchange of information."


Kristin Jones, a New York-based reporter, was lead author of the 2007 CPJ special report Falling Short: As the 2008 Olympics Approach, China Falters on Press Freedom. Nina Ognianova, CPJ's Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, was the lead author of the 2012 CPJ special report Turkey's Press Freedom Crisis: The Dark Days of Jailing Journalists and Criminalizing Dissent. Ognianova reported from Moscow for three months in 2012.


Slideshow: Year in Photos

Slideshow: Year in Photos