Olympic Trial: How Will China, Hardly a Bastion of Press Freedom, Cope with an Invasion of 20,000 Foreign Journalists for the 2008 Olympics?

Article excerpt

Take the world's largest totalitarian regime, notoriously sensitive to criticism and particularly wary of foreign journalists. Add one of the world's largest sporting events and, with it, an estimated 20,000 of those same uncontainable foreign media types that the regime so dreads.

Just what the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games--China's first turn on the premier global sporting stage--will bring for journalists specifically, and open society in general, is a major question as preparations speed forward. Media groups warn that the potential for real problems does exist, and journalists should know the rules and risks and how to handle them. That is no easy task: The Beijing organizing committee for the games says the rules will not be issued until next year.

Press-averse China, consistently ranked as one of the world's worst anti-free-speech regimes and a leading jailer of journalists, has thrown itself headlong into enthusiastic preparations for the Beijing games. The Chinese capital is in the midst of a near-total physical overhaul, the old city dwarfed by billions of dollars' worth of glittering skyscraper construction set for completion by 2008. Locals are being encouraged to present a prettier face to the world, in part by learning a little English and ditching bad habits like spitting on sidewalks.

Still, China has a government-controlled domestic press and is known to be somewhat heavy-handed in dealing with foreign reporters who break its often ill-defined and ambiguous regulations. Beijing has given no signal that it plans to loosen or clarify those regulations, or make adhering to them any easier, before the Olympics arrive.

In September, the Chinese government added to the uncertainty by issuing new press regulations that require international media outlets to go through the state-run Xinhua news agency to distribute information to Chinese consumers. These rules, which could allow Xinhua to censor news distributed within China, may have been aimed at media companies hoping for a share of the potentially lucrative, untapped Chinese market.

Top Chinese officials have said the new restrictions will not affect Olympics reporting, and several observers interviewed for this piece say they don't expect the rules to have any real impact. But press freedom and human rights groups have decried the regulations as a tool to control the international press leading up to the 2008 games.

"It is outrageous that Xinhua, the Communist Party mouthpiece, should claim full powers over news agencies," Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres said in a statement. "Xinhua is establishing itself as a predator of both free enterprise and free information."

Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, says the September rules don't "sound like a country gearing up for what would be for them a display of unprecedented press freedom in two years. The bottom line is this: China is putting in place drastic restrictions on the press. The country is headed in the exact opposite direction of what they are promising for the Olympic Games in 2008."

Though there are some very real concerns about access, most likely the meeting of the Chinese government and throngs of international media will create little mayhem, a few high-profile problems, a whole lot of frustrated reporters and photographers, and the potential for lasting troubles for their Chinese staff who stay on after the games end.

A few weeks after the new restrictions came out, officials from the Beijing Olympics committee promised unfettered travel in China and uncensored Internet access for foreign reporters covering the games. In addition, organizing committee officials announced at a news conference in the Chinese capital that journalists with Olympics credentials will not need Chinese visas to enter the country. That sounds encouraging, but the actual rules for media coverage of the games have not been written. …