International advocacy may have had a role in prompting the reported new rules for police in dealing with journalists covering demonstrators during the Games, but the most likely cause was the damage to China's international image from the widespread video of cops roughing up a few Hong Kong camera crews.
Reuters Beijing bureau chief Ben Lim's story is about an internal government document that the agency saw outlining the "new rules issued last week instructing Beijing police not to interfere with antigovernment public speeches concerning the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong, Xinjiang, Tibet or Taiwan independence. They can only intervene if there is 'drastic action that attracts a crowd or affects public order' on the capital's Tiananmen Square or other politically sensitive sites." The police have also been told to stop sticking their hands in front of camera lenses and taking photographers' memory cards from their cameras.
It's not surprising that it was Lim who appears to have gotten the first look; he has been a fixture in China for decades, a senior, well-respected, well-connected foreign correspondent. Reuters in Hong Kong called me this afternoon for comments as the story was being written, but I didn't make the final cut, so here's my take:
Rules like this are welcome, of course. But they are already in place: Freedom of speech and the press is guaranteed in China's Constitution:
Article 35. Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.
Lim's story says these police rules are for foreign journalists and appear to be specific to the Games. Just as the government said it's ready to extend the easing of travel and interview restrictions that it put in place in January 2007 for foreign journalists, it should make these rules of behavior permanent, too. And of course, those eased travel restrictions were discarded during the March ethnic riots in Tibet.
While we're on the subject, let's address the question of the distinction between foreign and Chinese journalists. The major Olympics media-related story going into last weekend
was the failure of China to allow unfettered Internet access in the Olympics' Main Press Center, and how the filtering of Web sites there was a broken promise to foreign journalists. Left unaddressed was the fact that when China made its bid for the Games back in 2001, it made no distinction between foreign and Chinese journalists.
"There will be no restrictions on journalists in reporting on the Olympic Games," the Beijing organizers flatly promised in their official bid to host the Games. The Chinese journalists working during the Games are still under the heavy restrictions that came into play last year, during the Communist Party's National Congress in October, when media restrictions were tightened, as they always are during such national events. They were never loosened, and the Central Propaganda Department has continued to write the rules on how individual stories will be covered. Yes, Chinese journalists broke free of those restraints several times, notably during the ice storms in the south of the country in January and February, and then again in Sichuan in the aftermath of the May 12 earthquake. But remember, they too were shut out of Tibet and had to rely solely on Xinhua accounts of what was happening.
China's enterprising press corps still faces much tighter controls than their overseas colleagues, and China media watchers in Hong Kong say there is a growing skepticism that the government will ever loosen the controls that have been in place. For them, there has been no Olympics-related easing of restrictions.