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Media freedom for China Games

Beijing, Dec. 1: Press freedom got a new — but temporary — boost in China yesterday when the government announced it would allow foreign journalists greater freedom in the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Until now, foreign journalists had to ask permission from Chinese authorities before conducting any interviews and travelling anywhere outside their home city. While the rules were only loosely enforced, authorities used them selectively to clamp down on journalists covering sensitive stories.

Liu Jianchao, a spokesperson for the foreign ministry, said the government had decided to lift these restrictions from January 1 until the end of the 2008 Olympics. But once the Olympics are over, the old restrictions will be reinstated, Liu said.

“As long as you can secure the consent of your interviewee you can go ahead with your interview,” Liu Jianchao said. “When you travel your rights are the same as all (non-journalist) foreign nationals in China. When you interview a person or company, you don’t have to apply to the local foreign affairs office for permission and they don’t have the responsibility to ask ‘What are you doing here'’”

But restrictions for all foreigners on travel to the far western Xinjiang and Tibet, where the treatment of ethnic minorities is a focus of Beijing’s critics, would also apply to journalists.

Also, in situations where social order might be at stake, there would be controls on all journalists, including foreigners, Liu said without commenting further.

Beijing’s decision to liberalise the rules appears to have been driven by pressure from several sources, including the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the European Union and media companies. IOC president Jacques Rogge had told reporters months ago that the “new media regulations will come out towards the end of the year and we are waiting for that”.

The new changes fulfil an old commitment. In 2001, Wang Wei, who headed Beijing’s Olympic bid, had promised international journalists they would have “complete freedom to report when they came to China ”.

Getting Beijing to deliver on Wang’s promise had becoming increasingly pressing in recent years. Since Beijing was handed the Olympic torch in 2004, there had been at least 72 occurrences of journalists from 15 countries being harassed by authorities, the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of China in Beijing has said.

For example, in July last year, two BBC journalists were detained and strip-searched while they were researching a land dispute in Dingzhou, Hebei province.

More significant, Zhao Yan, a researcher with The New York Times, has been sentenced to three years in prison for fraud and Ching Cheong, a correspondent for Singapore’s Straits Times, has been arrested on espionage charges.

Several Chinese have also been beaten and arrested for talking with foreign reporters.

The latest such case to grab the headlines was that of Fu Xiancai, 47, a farmer in central Chongqing province. Fu was taken in for interrogation by the local police chief after he complained to a German news crew about local corruption. Shortly after, he was mysteriously assaulted by thugs and beaten so badly he is now paralysed. A police investigation claimed Fu’s injuries were self-inflicted.

China saw a fall in riots and protests over the first nine months of this year, but inequality, pollution and land-grabs have fuelled waves of vocal rural discontent. Many detentions of foreign journalists have been while covering these incidents.

The regulations take effect from January 1 and expire on October 17, 2008.

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