China Blocks Internet Sites for Foreign Journalists Covering Olympics

Published July 30, 2008

| FoxNews.com

Olympic organizers are backtracking on another promise about coverage of the Beijing Games, keeping in place blocks on Internet sites in the Main Press Center and venues where reporters will work.

The blocked sites will make it difficult for journalists to retrieve information, particularly on political and human rights stories the government dislikes. On Tuesday, sites such as Amnesty International or any search for a site with Tibet in the address could not be opened at the Main Press Center, which will house about 5,000 print journalists when the games open Aug. 8.

"This type of censorship would have been unthinkable in Athens, but China seems to have more formalities," said Mihai Mironica, a journalist with ProTV in Romania. "If journalists cannot fully access the Internet here, it will definitely be a problem."

The censored Internet is the latest broken promise on press freedoms. In bidding for the games seven years ago, Chinese officials said the media would have "complete freedom to report." And in April, Hein Verbruggen and Kevan Gosper — senior IOC members overseeing the games — said they'd received assurances from Chinese officials that Internet censorship would be lifted for journalists during the games.

China routinely blocks Internet access to its own citizens.

Gosper, however, issued a clarification Tuesday. He said the open Internet extended only to sites that related to "Olympic competitions."

"My preoccupation and responsibility is to ensure that the games competitions are reported openly to the world," Gosper said.

"The regulatory changes we negotiated with BOCOG and which required Chinese legislative changes were to do with reporting on the games," Gosper added, using the acronym for the Olympic organizers. "This didn't necessarily extend to free access and reporting on everything that relates to China."

Journalists trying to use the Internet on Tuesday expressed frustration, and some also complained about slow speeds. Several said it might be an intentional ploy to discourage use.

Reporters Without Borders condemned Chinese authorities, who they say have yet again lied, and the IOC’s refusal to prevent the situation.

“Yet another broken promise,” the press freedom organization said. “Coming just nine days before the opening ceremony, this is yet another provocation by the Chinese authorities. This situation increases our concern that there will be many cases of censorship during the games. We condemn the IOC’s failure to do anything about this, and we are more than sceptical about its ability to ‘ensure’ that the media are able to report freely.”

Journalists on Tuesday reported they were unable to access a new Amnesty International report entitled “The Olympic countdown — broken promises” or the Web sites for many foreign media, such as the BBC’s Chinese-language service, the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle, the Hong Kong-based Apple Daily and the Taiwan-based Liberty Time. The Reporters Without Borders website was also inaccessible.

IOC officials have said the Internet would be operational by "games time," which began Sunday when the Olympic Village opened.

In a related event, Amnesty International released a report Tuesday accusing China of failing to improve its human rights record ahead of the Olympics.

The group said that in the last year, thousands of petitioners, reformists and others were arrested as part of a government campaign to "clean up" Beijing before the Olympics. It said many have been sentenced to manual labor without trial.

Beijing organizers have been backtracking on the freedom to report.

Rights holders such as NBC, which has paid about $900 million to broadcast the games, and non-rights holders have faced roadblocks, red tape and changing rules as they prepare to cover unexpected events away from the venues.

Broadcasters have complained about having permits rescinded, being forced to give notice a month ahead of time about the location of satellite trucks, and facing harassment from bureaucrats and police about renting office space or getting parking permits for their vehicles.

Earlier this month, broadcasters tried again to get Olympic organizers to lift restrictions on live broadcasts from Tiananmen Square. Alex Gilady, a senior IOC member and a senior vice president of NBC Sports, has pushed for more live time from the iconic venue — China is offering six hours daily, and no interviews. Others are pressing to lift the ban on live interviews.

"Don't push the issue," responded organizing committee executive vice president Wang Wei, according to an official who attended the meeting. It was Wang who led Beijing's 2001 bid, and who said after winning: "We will give the media complete freedom to report when they come to China."

NBC is promising to air 3,600 hours of coverage, and its owner, General Electric, is one of 12 top sponsors of the IOC. Some top sponsors have reportedly paid as much as $200 million.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports, said he would like to see more "openness" from Chinese officials. But he seemed to play down the news value of the Olympics. He said NBC was ready to cover stories as they come up, but "we're not going to cavalierly ... blow out sporting events to show news."

Olympic historian David Wallechinsky has criticized the IOC for giving the games to China. He's visited the country more than a half-dozen times in 30 years, and said the IOC and its sponsors were distracted by China's booming economy.

"There is so much money being made that the IOC has just turned a blind eye," Wallechinsky said. "The IOC wanted to believe it was all going to go well, and they weren't there when they should have been. You know, the Communist Party wants to control everything."

The IOC has maintained the Olympics are a sports event, and it should not intervene in politics. However, others have faulted the Swiss-based body for failing to hold China to promises made seven years ago when it won the bid.

"It is truly sad to see the IOC fail in this regard," said Vincent Brossell, a spokesman for Paris-based press rights group Reporters Without Borders.

Rioting in Tibet four months ago, which sparked protests on international legs of the torch relay, was followed by the mobilization of an army of security personnel in Beijing — 110,000 police, riot squads and special forces, augmented by more than 300,000 Olympic volunteers and neighborhood watch members.

Cuban reporter Joel Garcia Leon, with the magazine Trabajadores, said he expected the censorship. But he was overwhelmed by other red tape.

"I'm surprised how tightly controlled and complicated everything is here," he said. "To get a phone number from China Mobile, I have to give them a copy of my passport and my mother's maiden name. This seems quite excessive and abnormal."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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