Thursday, July 31, 2008

Countdown to the 2008 Beijing Olympics – Censorship and the Media

A week from today the biggest sports event in Chinese history begins with the Beijing Olympic Games opening ceremonies take place. Wednesday and Thursday the world media took notice of the Beijing Games, but the news had little to do with athletes getting ready to compete in events they have worked a lifetime to get ready for.

Instead the worst fears the International Olympic Committee must have had when they awarded the Games to China and Beijing on July 13, 2001 – reports from the Olympic Media Centre (which officially opened last Friday) suggest in no uncertain terms the Chinese government are censoring journalists from around the world who have traveled to China to report on the Games. Even scarier, published reports have reports email’s to their newspapers and media outlets being censored and/or being prevented from being delivered. The Red Chinese, China a communist country are back with all the venom and fear many have long believed would be a part of the Beijing Games.

It’s very important to remember that when China was bidding for the Olympics seven years ago, the Communist government assured the news media would have "complete freedom to report." That was one of several promises made at the time to ease Western fears regarding Beijing's oppression of political dissidents.

Chinese authorities confirmed late Wednesday that the 20,000 foreign journalists covering the Olympic Games will not have unrestricted access to the Internet during their stay. Kevin Gosper, the head of the IOC’s press commission, admitted Wednesday: “I also now understand that some IOC officials negotiated with the Chinese that some sensitive sites would be blocked on the basis they were not considered games related.”

Yesterday Gosper said the IOC’s key concern was to “ensure that the media are able to report on the games as they did in previous games.”

Reporters Without Borders condemned the International Olympic Committee’s acceptance of the fact the Chinese authorities are blocking access to certain websites at the Olympic Games media centre in Beijing. More than 20,000 foreign journalists are affected.

The organization also condemned the cynicism of the Chinese authorities, who have yet again lied, and the IOC’s inability to prevent this situation because of its refusal to speak out for several years.

“Yet another broken promise!” the press freedom organization said. “Coming just nine days before the opening ceremony, this is yet another provocation by the Chinese authorities. This situation increases our concern that there will be many cases of censorship during the games. We condemn the IOC’s failure to do anything about this, and we are more than skeptical about its ability to ‘ensure’ that the media are able to report freely.”

Sun Weide, the chief spokesman for the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG), said the authorities would only guarantee “sufficient” Internet access for accredited media.

The Internet that foreign journalists in China can access is only relatively free. Wednesday, they were unable to access a new Amnesty International report entitled “The Olympic countdown - broken promises” or the websites for many foreign media, such as the BBC’s Chinese-language service, the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle, the Hong Kong-based Apple Daily and the Taiwan-based Liberty Time. The Reporters Without Borders and Falungong spiritual movement websites were also inaccessible.

Last February, the IOC announced that athletes would be allowed to keep blogs during the games as they were “a legitimate form of personal expression and not a form of journalism” but it said the blogs would have to free of political content.

In reaction to the IOC statement, Mark Allison, East Asia researcher for Amnesty International said: "The International Olympic Committee and the Organizing Committee of the Beijing Olympic Games should fulfill their commitment to ‘full media freedom" and provide immediate uncensored internet access at Olympic media venues. Censorship of the internet at the Games is compromising fundamental human rights and betraying the Olympic values.

The IOC has on many occasions highlighted the loosening of restrictions on foreign media in China as an example of the promised improvement in human rights by the Chinese authorities through the hosting of the Olympics. On April 1, Gosper said that the continued blocking of some websites would "reflect very poorly" on the hosts. On July 17 Jacques Rogge, IOC President, said "there will be no censorship of the internet."

"This blatant media censorship adds one more broken promise that undermines the claim that the Games would help improve human rights in China," said Mark Allison.

On Monday July 29, Amnesty International published the report "Olympic Countdown: Broken Promises" which evaluated the performance of the Chinese authorities in four areas related to the core values of the Olympics: persecution of human rights activists, detention without trial, censorship and the death penalty. They all related to the 'core values' of 'human dignity' and 'respect for universal fundamental ethical principles' in the Olympic Charter. The new report showed there has been little progress towards fulfilling the Chinese authorities' promise to improve human rights, but rather continued deterioration in key areas.

Working in full damage control with their crisis management team on full alert the IOC released the following statement early Thursday afternoon: “Our position is that the IOC has always encouraged the Beijing 2008 organizers to provide media with the fullest access possible to report on the Olympic Games, including access to the internet.

“In light of internet access problems which were experienced this week by media in the Olympic Games Main Press Centre in Beijing, the IOC – namely Chairman of the Beijing 2008 IOC Coordination Commission Hein Verbruggen and Olympic Games Executive Director Gilbert Felli – held meetings and discussions today with Games organizers (BOCOG) and Chinese authorities.

“The issues were put on the table and the IOC requested that the Olympic Games hosts address them. We understand that BOCOG will give details to the media very soon of how the matter has been addressed. We trust them to keep their promise.
“The IOC would like to stress that no deal with the Chinese authorities to censor the internet has ever in any way been entered into.”

Reactions from most media outlets (notably those based and controlled by China’s communist government have been supportive of China’s censorship measures) have been universal in their complete comdination.

Dennis Wilder, the White House's Asian affairs director, told reporters in Washington he was "disappointed that they clamped down on the Internet" in China.

"There have been questions about the access to the Internet and other issues at the Olympic centers," he said. "We think the Chinese government needs to heed those concerns, that if China is going to demonstrate it is truly moving forward as a modern society, this is part of it."

According to a New York Times report: Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas, introduced a resolution on Tuesday urging China to reconsider what he said were its plans to force international hotel chains to track electronic communications by its guests. At a news conference, he introduced redacted documents that he said were provided by the hotels requiring them to install government software to monitor Internet traffic during the Olympics.

Jonathan Watts, president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, told The New York Times Wednesday he was disappointed that Beijing had failed to honor its agreement to temporarily remove the firewall that prevented Chinese citizens from fully using the Internet.

“Obviously if reporters can’t access all the sites they want to see, they can’t do their jobs,” he said. “Unfortunately such restrictions are normal for reporters in China, but the Olympics were supposed to be different.”

Gosper found out about the U-turn from The Australian, the leading daily in the country that hosted the 2000 Sydney Games.

"I don't know who did the deal. I am still finding out," Mr Gosper told the paper.

"I understand it was reached with very senior (IOC and Chinese) officials. Whoever was involved in that shift, that position should have been made known to the international media community. As a conduit to that, I should have been informed too, instead of being isolated and given misinformation for some time.

"It has dented my reputation quite seriously. People take me at my word so I expect the information I am giving to be consistent."

"I am disappointed because I have learned in corporate life that you don't deliver surprises to constituents, and the media is a key constituent at the Olympics.
"People will judge that I have been naive."

Gosper, who is one of the first IOC members to arrive in Beijing, told The Australian he fell for the lie about uncensored internet access announced two years ago because he believed it was in China's interests to have free and open media at the Olympics.

"I believed we would stick to the agreement. That is what we have done at different Games held in all sorts of societies. I thought China would judge it was in their interests. If they shifted, fine, but tell us."

According to The Australian the infamous Great Firewall of China that blocks a multitude of websites, even in the Olympic press centre, was also blocking emails yesterday.

Emails sent from Beijing to Sydney by The Australian's China correspondent, Rowan Callick, which included an article from the Far Eastern Economic Review, failed to arrive.

Other messages sent at the same time to the same people, with the same subject name, were all received immediately.

The website of the well-respected bi-monthly journal, published in Hong Kong and owned by News Corp, as is The Australian, is blocked in China for reasons authorities have never explained.

The writing has long been on the wall when it came to how the Communist Chinese were going to treat the media for many years. If maximizing marketing and sponsorship dollars played a determining factor in the Games being awarded to Beijing, a report released TWO YEARS AGO from “Reporters Without Borders” made it abundantly clear, China politically remained a communist country then, where freedom remains a question mark.

Reporters Without Borders where outraged that, 730 days before the start of the Beijing Games (again two years ago), the Chinese authorities where able to continue a crackdown on the press with virtually nothing being said by the IOC or the national Olympic committees. Nothing seemed capable of eliciting a reaction from the Olympic bodies two years ago, not even restrictions on the foreign press.

"This silence allows the Chinese government to shamelessly continue its massive human rights violations," Reporters Without Borders said in their July 2006 report. "Already marred by corruption, the preparation of the games has been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, which officials say is necessary to make sure they are safe." The press freedom organization also fears that all the surveillance and crowd-control equipment that China has bought from US, Israeli and French companies to ensure security at the games, will afterwards be used for repression.

Freedom of the press, a cornerstone of the American Constitution, won’t get in the way of companies focused on reaching the Chinese market. Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of marketing heavyweight WPP Group PLC, told the Wall Street Journal last year he believed China could be the world's second-largest advertising market. Sir Martin has said it is "difficult to think of any sporting or cultural event in the world that could be bigger."

The 2008 Games represents the largest single influx of journalists into China (more than 20,000 journalists). How the Chinese treat the foreign press will leave a lasting impression on the world.

"In no other major country is there so much control over foreign journalists,” Jonathan Watts of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China offered two years ago. Dozens of foreign journalists - both visitors and those based there - are detained, threatened or attacked each year. "We are unable to give an exact figure at the moment, somewhere between 50 and 100 a year, but the number of journalists prevented from working by force is a problem that should be raised at the highest level," says Watts.

Does that suggest journalists should be concerned about their safety if they’re covering the Beijing Games? Will journalists be permitted to cover the Games and report on what they see as they see fit? In a sad testament to how badly Western based companies want to find their way into the Chinese market, two years ago Google agreed to censor its search services in China in order to gain greater access to China's fast-growing market. (the cornerstone as to how the Chinese are censoring the media on the eve of the Beijing Games)

Google’s position at the time claimed the company wasn’t wasn’t sacrificing its integrity. “While removing search results is inconsistent with Google's mission, providing no information... is more inconsistent with our mission,” was in part the Google’s rationale.

There is every likelihood, probability that by the time you’re reading this the Communist Chinese will have eased if not removed all of the media censorship restrictions the Red Menace have put in place. What other choice(s) do Beijing Olympic organizers have. Consider the alternative, a very scary proposition if the restrictions remain in place:

If the restrictions remain in place, blocking of websites and preventing email’s from being freely sent to and from Beijing there is a strong probability many journalists will do whatever they have to do to report on how they are being treated and how they feel about it. It’s not that farfetched working under oppressive conditions, to imagine that reporters doing whatever they have to do report the news, fall into a terrible trap and the unthinkable takes place. Factoring how scary this could become – count on the Chinese changing their position.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: The Australian, USA Today, The Washington Post and The New York Times

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