Global Economics

China's Pre-Olympics Media Clampdown


Human Rights Watch reports Beijing wants favorable coverage from media outlets in exchange for credentials to cover the Summer Games

While the Beijing Olympics were expected to usher in a period of greater media freedom in China, as the final countdown for the Games nears, the vise on the media is getting tighter. That's the conclusion of a report released on July 7 by Human Rights Watch, entitled "China's Forbidden Zones, Shutting the Media out of Tibet and Other 'Sensitive' Stories."

Speaking at the release of the report at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Hong Kong, Sophie Richardson, the group's advocacy director for Asia, said the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee is "trying to extort favorable coverage in exchange for accreditation to cover the Games."

She also faulted the International Olympic Committee and Olympic sponsors, including Coca-Cola (KO), Lenovo, and Samsung, for failing to press Beijing more on human rights. "They all have very nice-sounding lofty corporate social responsibility pledges, but when you challenge them on their involvement in the Games, their aims narrow dramatically," she says. "Their promises only apply to people who work for those companies. They have made no attempt to rock boats."

Promises, Promises

China won its bid to host the Olympics in part thanks to its promises to improve media freedom, Richardson says, and Beijing did lift temporarily restrictions on the foreign media for the period from January 2007 to October 2008. This liberalization allowed members of the foreign media to travel freely anywhere in the country except Tibet without prior approval, and to interview whoever they wanted.

But the pendulum swung back the other way after protests in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa erupted in mid-March this year, and a government-orchestrated campaign to "demonize" the foreign media (BusinessWeek.com, 4/24/08) ensued, Richardson says. All requests by foreign media to cover the unrest in Tibet were summarily rejected (BusinessWeek.com, 3/17/08).

"The use of the state media for a campaign alleging Western bias became a convenient and powerful political tool," says Richardson. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) also declined to investigate anonymous death threats leveled at foreign journalists in the nationalistic backlash that followed.

Earthquake Leads to Greater Media Freedom

However, the reporting environment improved again, at least temporarily, when the government granted broad access to both domestic and foreign media after the Sichuan earthquake in early May. "The press authorities and the MFA know a good PR opportunity when they see it," says Richardson. However, once reporters started asking questions about the corruption behind shoddy construction of school buildings, which collapsed in the quake and took thousands of young lives, and angry parents began protesting, Beijing started to clamp down once again.

The report, which was based on interviews with 60 foreign correspondents between December 2007 and June 2008, said journalists and their sources continue to face significant obstacles whenever events are deemed "sensitive" by Beijing. Examples of this include social unrest, public health crises, ethnic conflicts, and high-level corruption. The report cited anonymous death threats against Newsweek reporter Melinda Liu and her family after the Tibetan riots in March, and the detention and beating of Reuters correspondent Chris Buckley in Beijing last September while he was interviewing rural Chinese who had gone to Beijing to petition the central government against local abuses.

It also suggested that intimidation of journalists' sources is on the rise. For example, local authorities have downloaded telephone numbers from the mobile phones of foreign reporters in order to harass Chinese citizens whom they had interviewed. But the report did not paint a uniformly black picture. It credits central authorities through the MFA with helping the media to deal with obstacles and harassment from by local officials.

The most recent example of a clampdown came on July 3 when a reporter from the Hong Kong-based Chinese-language newspaper Apple Daily was refused entry at the Beijing airport despite having press credentials to cover the Olympics. "What's going to happen when 25,000 journalists show up?" asked Human Rights Watch's Richardson. "If Beijing starts arbitrarily turning them away, that's going to be the story."

Balfour is Asia Correspondent for BusinessWeek based in Hong Kong.

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