Outrage over internet great wall of China

Jacquelin Magnay in Beijing | July 31, 2008

CHINA'S vow to open up its country to the world through the Olympic Games was in tatters last night as an International Olympic Committee member, Kevan Gosper of Australia, apologised to the global press for misleading them about access to the internet.

China's Communist Party regime has put in place a reinvigorated internet censorship program blocking controversial websites for journalists at the Beijing Olympic Games while demanding that hotels implement an intrusive spyware program to monitor guests' internet use.

The double whammy of increased censorship coupled with the hotel spying flies in the face of promises for complete media freedom made by the Chinese authorities when they won the right to host the Olympic Games in 2001. It was a pledge repeated as late as April this year.

Mr Gosper, who is chairman of the press commission and deputy chairman of the IOC Beijing co-ordination commission, revealed that "some IOC officials had negotiated with the Chinese to have some sensitive sites blocked". But he said he was unaware of the deal and had inadvertently misled the world's media for months about the extent to which they would have unfettered freedom of reporting.

After late night meetings with Beijing Olympic Games organisers, Mr Gosper said he could not "tell China what to do".

Earlier he told the South China Morning Post: "I am disappointed, but we are dealing with a communist country that has censorship, and you will see what they say you can see."

Mr Gosper acknowledged that many previous statements about unfettered access and freedom of reporting had been wrong.

An IOC press commission member, Paul Radford, of Reuters, said it had been made abundantly clear at many meetings with Beijing organisers that journalists would have unrestricted access to report freely at the Games. "Journalists have a right to be angry. It will adversely impact on the way they can cover the Games," Mr Radford said.

The toughening of the censorship is being laid at the feet of the Communist Party, Beijing Olympic insiders say. A new level of political influence in the organising committee in the past six weeks means that some of the promises made to the IOC will not be kept.

A Beijing Organising Committee spokesman, Sun Weide, said yesterday certain internet sites would be unavailable to foreign journalists. Mr Sun didn't specify which sites, but when asked about the Falun Gong, he said any sites associated with that movement were blocked.

"Our promise was that journalists would be able to use the internet for their work during the Olympic Games," Mr Sun said. "So we have given them sufficient access to do that."

Mr Gosper said the IOC was taking a "good hard look at what Sun Weide said and the implications of that".

Another Australian IOC member, John Coates, said he was shocked that China would implement such censorship. "It is important to have freedom of the press and full transparency during the Games but what the IOC can do about it, I don't know."

Yesterday the Herald was unable to access sensitive sites relating to human rights, Tibet and the Falun Gong spiritual movement. Other sites such as The New York Times, the BBC, Radio Free Asia and Taiwanese newspapers were unavailable.

Repeated searches for controversial topics on Google were also blocked.

This week journalists in Beijing were frustrated in their attempts to access the latest report issued by Amnesty International. Attempts to access information about tougher security measures in Tibet, were also unsuccessful.

A United States senator, Sam Brownback, revealed yesterday that international hotels had contacted him, concerned about being forced to install the spy system. He said the demands on the hotels to install the computer hardware and software meant journalists, athletes' families and visitors are subject "to invasive gathering by the Chinese Public Security Bureau".

"The Chinese Government has put in place a system to spy on and gather information about every guest at hotels," Senator Brownback said.

Complaints by the international media about the frustrating slowness of the internet at the Olympic Games main press centre have been interpreted by some that transmissions have been slowed by intense filtering of the world news agencies' copy flow.

Chinese officials said Games organisers had to work within the laws of China and any websites involving pornography, violence or matters of state security had been blocked.

The officials said this situation had been explained previously and that foreign media should be appreciative of the progressive steps taken to free up as many web sites as possible.