espite explosive economic growth and more Internet users than any country besides the United States, China remains backward in allowing its people access to news. Deep concern about China’s lack of press freedom and scant regard for the rights of journalists prompted the Committee to Protect Journalists to write this report as China prepares to host the 2008 Olympic Games.
Just one year before the world’s finest athletes fill Beijing, China is holding at least 29 reporters and editors behind bars because of their work. Most are imprisoned on vague security-related charges such as revealing state secrets or inciting subversion of state power. Relying on such catchall accusations, China has led the world in the number of jailed journalists since 1999.
Despite knowing this record, the International Olympic Committee in 2001 awarded the August 2008 Games to China. The negotiations and agreement between China and the IOC have not been made public, but both sides assured skeptics that all journalists would have unrestricted freedom to cover the Games. More broadly, the scenario put forward by friends of the IOC and of the Chinese government was that, buoyed by Olympic ideals, China would grow away from its insistence on tight government control of the flow of information and its harsh punishment of those who dare to work outside that system. Under this scenario, the media, unfettered for the Games, would continue to be freer after the world’s attention moved on.
That broad opening has not happened, although China lifted some restrictions on foreign journalists
in January 2007. In fact, since the Games were awarded, media restrictions ordered by the government
and the Communist Party have grown. Censors
still issue day-to-day “guidance” on exactly what can be reported in print, on the air, and on the Internet in all its manifestations—Web sites, blogs, message boards, discussion groups, and even instant messaging and texting. Prolonged
detentions and closed-door trials of journalists have continued as well.
That China so far has failed to fulfill its pledges on press freedom is not news to local reporters. But visiting journalists, caught up in the media machine of the world’s premier sporting event, may not be fully aware of the restrictions and pressures placed on their Chinese colleagues. Unless things change, and soon, reporters who venture beyond the Olympic Village should be prepared to work in an environment where official interference and detentions of journalists are common and sources are at risk.
Journalists in China and around the world hope that the world’s most populous nation will match its great economic and technical advances by taking similar strides toward a freer media. It would be a splendid way to honor the Games.
Paul E. Steiger
Chairman, Committee to Protect Journalists