(New York, August 7, 2007) – One year before the 2008 Olympics open in Beijing, the Chinese government is violating commitments on media freedom it made to the International Olympics Committee by continuing to harass, intimidate and detain foreign journalists and their local colleagues, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
“The Chinese government’s attempts to intimidate and detain foreign journalists for simply doing their jobs shows contempt for Olympic ideas of fair play,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The ongoing harassment and detention of journalists makes Beijing’s Olympic pledge on media freedoms seem more like a public relations ploy than a sincere policy initiative.”
As part of Beijing’s bid for the 2008 Olympics, in 2001 it assured the IOC that the government would ease its traditional chokehold on foreign and local journalists during the Olympic Games in Beijing. That commitment to wider media freedom is in line with the obligation of Olympic host cities to comply with Article 51 of the IOC Olympic Charter, which stipulates that the IOC should take “all necessary steps in order to ensure the fullest coverage by the different media and the widest possible audience in the world for the Olympic Games.”
Chinese officials who have reiterated the government’s commitment to media freedom during the Olympic period include Premier Wen Jiabao. In April, Wen said that “the freedom of foreign journalists in their news coverage will also be ensured,” according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency.
As part of its commitment to the IOC, the Chinese government in May 2007 announced new freedoms for accredited foreign journalists in China in the “Service Guide for Foreign Media” published on the website of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games. The guide states that “the regulations on Reporting Activities by Foreign Journalists shall apply to the coverage of the Beijing Olympic Games and the preparation as well as political, economic, social and cultural matter of China by foreign journalists in conformity with Chinese laws and regulations.” The temporary regulations, in effect from January 1, 2007 until October 17, 2008, allow foreign journalists to freely conduct interviews with any consenting Chinese organization or citizen. The regulations do not allow similar freedoms for Chinese journalists.
Some foreign journalists interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that, since January 1, the new rules have indeed widened their access to certain dissidents and normally media-shy government officials. But some said their reporting efforts remain routinely hobbled by government officials, police and plainclothes thugs who claim ignorance of the new regulations or willfully flout them.
Official obstruction of foreign journalists
Foreign journalists have most often been harassed, detained and intimidated for pursuing stories deemed sensitive by the Chinese government, including coverage of political dissidents, Tibet, the country’s HIV-AIDS epidemic and issues of “social stability,” such as riots, demonstrations and their aftermath.
But officials do not confine their obstruction of legal reporting efforts by foreign journalists to issues judged “sensitive” by the Chinese government. In one case, a foreign journalist doing prearranged corporate coverage of a state-owned factory was confronted by a Chinese Communist Party official who insisted that the factory’s mere existence was a “state secret” and who harassed the reporter throughout the duration of his visit. In another instance, a foreign photographer and her colleague were shadowed and intimidated for a full day by a group of plainclothes thugs while doing a story about a long-dead convicted serial killer.
In two separate incidents early this year, individuals in civilian clothes (whom journalists suspected were plainclothes police officers) violently pushed, shoved and attempted to detain two journalists in central Beijing in full view of impassive uniformed state security personnel. The attack happened while the journalists attempted to cover the efforts of petitioners from the countryside to seek government redress for problems including illegal land confiscation and official corruption.
Alarmingly, some correspondents told Human Rights Watch that China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has itself engaged in intimidation to discourage unwanted reporting. In one case, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs actively pressured a foreign news agency based in Beijing to scuttle coverage of a “sensitive” topic by one of its bureaus outside China, and retaliated with the refusal of a work visa when the news agency refused to comply.
Human Rights Watch said that these and other ongoing violations of the temporary regulations raise troubling questions about the freedom and security of the many thousands of journalists expected to come to China to cover the Olympics.
“The Chinese government still has one year to get this right, but only if officials choose meaningful action over empty rhetoric,” said Adams. “The world will be watching to see whether Beijing will live up to its commitments to the International Olympic Committee.”
Discrimination against Chinese journalists
The report also documents the tightening surveillance and pressure faced by Chinese nationals who are assistants, researchers, translators or sources for foreign journalists in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. It examines how the Chinese government maintains a stranglehold on the activities of domestic journalists who are intentionally excluded from the new temporary regulations, and strictly censors local reporting to comply with official propaganda objectives.
“It’s hypocritical for the government to deny Chinese journalists even the limited freedoms that their foreign colleagues enjoy,” said Adams. “Beijing’s failure to ensure equal freedoms for Chinese journalists not only violates freedom of expression, but is a form of invidious discrimination against its own nationals, particularly as China’s own constitution guarantees freedom of the press.”