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A publication of the
Committee to Protect Journalists





2. Words and Deeds: Confronting the Contradictions

 

As part of the Olympic bid process, Beijing pledged complete freedom for all accredited journalists. Yet just one year before the Games are to begin, China has fallen far short in allowing free and unfettered news coverage.


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he 2008 Olympic Games are China’s opportunity to step forward on the world stage and present itself as a country ready to take on global responsibilities, one whose place among modern nations is indisputable.

That sort of confirmation is not without historic precedent. The successful 1964 Games in Tokyo firmly re-established Japan as a modern, democratic nation, one that had moved irrevocably beyond its World War II history and postwar economic collapse. The 1988 Games in Seoul proved to the world that South Korea was no longer saddled with the heritage of the military governments that had held sway throughout the Cold War years; clearly the country was ready to assume its role as an international partner. In both nations economic growth was dynamic and well established. Awarding them the Games was the world’s recognition of not only their economic progress, but also their political and social development.

Now it is China’s chance. The Games were awarded to China in July 2001 after an exhaustive selection process carried out by the Evaluation Commission of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The commission, using a long list of criteria, compared bids from a short list of five cities: Beijing, Istanbul, Osaka, Paris, and Toronto. The Chinese government and its people are now using their amazing economic growth of the past decades to undertake a vast effort to ensure that the Games meet the exacting standards of a global audience.

But there is a problem. Unlike Tokyo in 1964 and Seoul in 1988, where economic growth was matched by social and democratic development, Beijing in 2007 continues to fall short on human rights issues, notably, the assurance of free and unfettered media—a fact not lost on the IOC. As part of the competitive bidding process, China pledged full media access for all accredited journalists, without
distinguishing between Chinese and foreign reporters. Among the other four candidates—with the possible exception of Istanbul—questions of media freedom had not been a significant issue. The IOC does not make its contracts with host cities public, so to quell fears that China’s longstanding policies of media control would not be up to global standards for the Games, the IOC’s Evaluation Commission, in a report issued on April 3, 2001, specifically noted the government’s promise that “there will be no restrictions on media reporting and movement of journalists up to and including the Olympic Games.”

During the IOC’s decision-making process, the Chinese government repeated that commitment to free and open media whenever the question arose. “By allowing Beijing to host the Games you will help the development of human rights,” Liu Jingmin, vice president of the Beijing 2008 bid committee, told Agence France-Presse in an April 2001 interview. “China and the outside world need to integrate. China’s opening up is irreversible. The Olympic Games is a good opportunity to promote understanding.” Others offered broad assurances. “We will give the media complete freedom to report when they come to China,” Wang Wei, secretary-general of the Beijing bid committee, told reporters when China was awarded the Games. “We are confident that the Games’ coming to China not only promotes our economy but also enhances all social conditions, including education, health, and human rights.”

"There will be no restrictions on journalists in reporting on the Olympic Games."

--Beijing Olympics organizers in their official bid to host the 2008 Games, filed on January 17, 2001.

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romising words on media freedom—but those promises have not become reality. CPJ research shows that China currently imprisons at least 29 journalists because of their work. That number, though down from 31 the previous year, still makes China the world’s leading jailer of journalists, a notorious distinction it has held for eight consecutive years. At least five journalists are currently being detained in Beijing for covering national politics and other issues that would be of interest to the 20,000 accredited journalists and technical staff expected in Beijing in August 2008.

The imprisoned journalists include employees of foreign news outlets. Zhao Yan, a researcher with the Beijing bureau of The New York Times, was tried on charges of fraud and leaking state secrets in June 2006 in closed proceedings at which he was not allowed to call defense witnesses. The court dismissed the state secrets charge but upheld the fraud count. Zhao, who has been in jail since September 2004, was arrested less than two weeks after the Times ran a report that seemed to embarrass national leaders by correctly predicting the retirement of former President Jiang Zemin from his post as chairman of the Central Military Commission.

Ching Cheong, a Hong Kong-based reporter for The Straits Times of Singapore, was sentenced in 2006 to five years in prison on a vague espionage charge. He was first detained in April 2005 while attempting to meet with a source to obtain transcripts of interviews with the late, ousted leader Zhao Ziyang. Ching was held for months without access to a lawyer or his family.

In each case—and in the cases of more than two dozen other journalists—China used the law as a tool to punish the press for reporting on issues that might embarrass the government or challenge its public officials. The imprisonments of journalists who work for foreign media, chilling as they are, are far outnumbered by the cases of local journalists, who have few allies once they are caught in the government’s legal snare.

Given that these harsh media realities still exist six years after the Games were awarded to China, the IOC’s interest in addressing these problems should be more full-throated.

In May 2006, Hein Verbruggen, head of the IOC’s coordination commission for the Beijing Games, sent a decidedly mixed message when the media issue was raised at a press conference in the capital. “In this country there are laws and they have to be respected—that is something we have to accept and everybody has to accept,” Verbruggen told reporters. “As long as the media behaves in the normal way, then I’m sure there will be no problems. … If it’s in the law, then it is in the law.” When pressed for clarification, he said, “We have a guarantee in the host city contract that journalists would be able to operate as they do in other Games in other countries. … It has been repeated several times. It was guaranteed by [Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games president] Mr. Liu Qi himself and we have no reason to believe that will not be the case.”

Concerned by such weak assurances and conflicting signals, CPJ met with IOC Olympic Games Executive Director Gilbert Felli and his staff at their headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, on November 15, 2006. The meeting was unpromising—the IOC said it would look into the matter but left CPJ unsure of how hard it would push the issue with the Chinese government. “It is not within our mandate to act as an agent for concerned groups,” Felli told CPJ. He added that it was not the IOC’s responsibility to bring specific examples of media repression to the table. “Journalists are imprisoned all over the world, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for bad reasons,” he said. And, while the IOC representatives said that they would consider CPJ’s concerns, their subsequent statements were equivocal, and on the whole, not encouraging. At a press conference in April 2007, Verbruggen, pressed on the broader question of China’s human rights offenses, repeated the IOC’s stock response that the Games have brought “positive change” to China. IOC President Jacques Rogge would say only that the Games are “a force for good wherever they are staged”—a vague formula the committee has stuck to whenever media issues have been raised.


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n China, the government continued to send its own mixed messages as it appeared to experiment with approaches to media control. In 2005, it added to an already long series of restrictions on Internet news content, saying that Web sites couldn’t run stories that could incite illegal protests or gatherings, or post information about “illegal” nongovernmental organizations. In September 2006, it announced that the official Xinhua News Agency would soon become the distributor for all news, photos, and economic data flowing out of the country—a proposal that eventually died on the negotiating table when Western media organizations complained very loudly.

Another proposal raises disturbing questions about the reporting of breaking news, including natural disasters and civil unrest. In the first version of the legislation, journalists faced fines for reporting breaking news before the government announced details. Legislators in the National People’s Congress rewrote the bill this summer after critics accused the government of not learning the lessons of the 2002-04 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), during which the government tried to hide the spread of a new disease that killed 774 people and sickened more than 8,000 worldwide. The latest version, while deleting explicit penalties for journalists, still bars the reporting of anything the government considers “false information.” The measure was pending in July.


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n January 1, 2007, China did relax rules for the foreign press. In a nine-point statement issued through Xinhua, Premier Wen Jiabao announced that some restrictions on foreign journalists
conducting interviews with Chinese sources would be lifted, and that foreign correspondents would be allowed to travel around the country more freely. The new regulations are temporary—they will expire in October 2008—and apply only to foreign journalists working in China, not their local counterparts. The new guidelines allow foreigners to cover the Beijing Games and “related matters in China.” Which “related matters” has not been made clear.

Foreign journalists in China have reported less harassment since the new regulations were handed down, although most still operate under the assumption that their phones are tapped and their e-mail is monitored. Local Chinese journalist report that the conditions under which they work have not changed. Many remain wary of working too closely with their foreign colleagues, and many tell CPJ they are cautious about taking advantage of the freedoms that might open up during the Games. What will happen to them once the spotlight has moved on from the Games and the foreign media have packed up and gone home?

CPJ prepared this report to confront these problems. In pointing out China’s shortfalls in meeting its international promises, CPJ wants to bring visiting journalists’ attention to the conditions under which their Chinese colleagues are working. And, for their own knowledge, visiting journalists covering the Beijing Games, and their editors, should be aware of the realities of reporting in China. Most reporters will be concerned about covering the competition between the world’s best athletes. But for those who venture beyond the sports venues to capture a wider view of China, and who rely on local journalists to help them, a different set of rules applies. And, if non-Olympic events suddenly become newsworthy during the Games, every journalist should be prepared to work in an environment that has been traditionally unfriendly and sometimes hostile to the media, no matter how economically and technically advanced China has become.

 

> Chapter 3
Commerce and Control: The Media’s Evolution

 

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