China's media freedom is in name only

July 14, 2008

There is a touch of Orwell about the easing of reporting restrictions, writes Mary-Anne Toy from Beijing

If China's superstar Liu Xiang fulfils his destiny and wins gold in the 110 metre hurdles at the Beijing Olympics, most of the nation's 1.3 billion television viewers will not see his achievement live.

Chinese authorities have ordered a 10-second broadcast delay to avoid "undesirable" incidents - such as protests or anti-Chinese slogans - being seen by the domestic masses, according to Hong Kong's Ming Pao daily, a Chinese-language newspaper.

But technically the 4 billion viewers around the world should be able to see everything live - including any protests - under China's promise to give the foreign media "complete freedom to report when they come to China". This was to include uncensored internet access.

But with only 25 days until the opening of the Games, China's pledge of media freedom is sounding distinctly Orwellian.

Last Thursday, a top Communist official, Li Changchun, when he inspected the new main press centre, repeated the pledge that foreign journalists could report freely before and during the Olympics.

Mr Li, a member of the powerful Politburo standing committee, said journalists could even lodge complaints with the president of the Beijing organising committee, Liu Qi, as if that would solve any problems.

On the ground it is a different matter. Foreign media, including those that have paid billions of dollars for broadcast rights, have been battling with Chinese security officials for months to try to get decisions or clarity on multiple issues that compromise television coverage.

These include equipment stuck at the docks or in customs, delays or refusals to issue visas to journalists, the right for satellite trucks to move freely around the city - without multiple forms filled out beforehand for every possible stop - and the right to broadcast from sites such as Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall.

Last week ZDF Television, a German rights holder, had its live transmission from the Great Wall - for which it had received approval - interrupted continually by local police.

And although some previously blocked websites, including Wikipedia and the BBC's news sites, are now accessible, internet censorship remains pervasive, and proxy servers, which enable those in China to evade the censors, are regularly detected and blocked.

The New York group Human Rights Watch said the Government's response of dismissing complaints about interference as inevitable glitches in a vast, politically decentralised country was only partly true.

Like other China-based foreign press, the Herald has had the central government, usually through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, intervene on its behalf when local officials refused to co-operate. But when the foreign media was under attack over alleged bias in its coverage of the Tibetan unrest, the ministry refused to investigate death threats against at least 10 foreign media members, despite a request from the Foreign Correspondents Club of China.

The foreign media bashing involved personal details of reporters being posted on domestic websites, prompting hundreds of phone, text and email threats to journalists, their Chinese staff and sometimes their families. Many were just insults, but a number were death threats.

The president of the Foreign Correspondents Club, Jonathan Watts, said the Government had yet to live up to its promise of complete reporting freedom and was giving mixed signals. He said the introduction of Olympic reporting regulations 18 months ago to allow foreign, but not domestic, reporters to travel freely and interview anyone who consents was a welcome improvement but implementation was patchy. The club has documented at least 259 cases of reporting interference since January 1 last year. Many more go unreported.

Some government officials continue blatantly to deny there are any travel restrictions on Tibet or Tibetan areas. Other officials use the euphemism that travel is permitted everywhere in "accordance with the regulations" - but the regulations ban you from travelling openly to Tibetan areas and Chinese citizens risk jail or worse for speaking to foreign reporters.

The other problem foreign media will have is that Beijing Olympic Broadcasting Co Ltd (BOB) is responsible on behalf of the Beijing organising committee for releasing footage of all aspects of the Games, except protests.

Depending on their budgets, Olympic rights holders can put their own cameras into venues but most of the world's media will rely on the footage BOB provides. Asked this year whether BOB would film and immediately release footage of disputes or protests, a senior executive told the Herald that "Beijing Olympic Broadcasting will do its best to avoid it". "Why would we [film and release protests]?" the executive said. "We are not a news organisation. We're there to film the event."

Chinese and foreigners in China hoping to rely on satellite coverage from foreign stations, such as CNN or the BBC - which are legally permitted to broadcast in housing compounds where foreigners live, upper-end hotels and other exempt areas - or stations such as the ABC's Australian network which is available on illegal - but so far tolerated - satellite, should note what appear to be increasing "signal" problems.

CNN and BBC reports on sensitive issues such as riots are regularly censored - the station signal is just stopped until the segment is finished. Western business residents in Beijing have also complained about an increase in dropout in mobile coverage within the city and delays in email and text transmissions.

The International Olympic Committee also seems reluctant at times to push China on the issue of media freedom. The IOC president, Jacques Rogge, said last week that journalists' fears of restrictions and censorship were unfounded.

"Never will the media have had so many possibilities as today," he said. Which is correct, but it is not the same as "complete media freedom", as in previous Olympics.