One hundred days before the Olympics, death threats against foreign correspondents and official statements demonizing Western media risk creating a hostile environment for foreign journalists based in China and for tens of thousands of additional media planning to cover the Games, says the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC).
At least ten foreign correspondents in China have received anonymous death threats during a campaign, on the Web and in state-run media, against alleged bias in Western media coverage of the Tibetan unrest and its aftermath.
The introduction of Olympics regulations allowing free travel and interviewing in China by foreign media between January 2007 and October 2008 represented an improvement in reporting conditions. However since March 14, the FCCC has learned of more than 50 incidents of interference in the work of international media trying to report in Tibetan communities. Foreign correspondents have been detained, prevented from conducting interviews, searched, and subjected to the confiscation or destruction of reporting materials. Authorities have intimidated Chinese sources and staff, and in some cases ordered them to inform on foreign correspondents’ activities.
“If allowed to continue, the reporting interference and hate campaigns targeting international media may poison the pre-Games atmosphere for foreign journalists,” says FCCC President Melinda Liu. “We urge government authorities to investigate the death threats, which violate Chinese law, and otherwise help create an environment in keeping with their Olympic promises.”
It’s not too late to improve conditions. The FCCC also urges:
- Nationwide implementation of the Olympic reporting regulations, including full media access to Tibet and Tibetan areas in the provinces of Sichuan, Gansu, Qinghai and Yunnan.
- Investigation of reports of official harassment of foreign media.
- Timely issuance of press visas to foreign media planning to report in China during the Olympics period.
- Improved government transparency, especially in Olympics-related departments.
- Guarantees that Chinese nationals who speak to foreign media will not be punished or intimidated.
- An early pledge to extend the current foreign media reporting regulations after they expire on Oct. 17, 2008.
The FCCC fully supports Beijing’s Olympics action plan, made public in 2002, to “be open in every aspect to the rest of the country and the whole world” and to “follow international standards and criteria” in the period before and during the 2008 Games. We urge Beijing to make good on these commitments at the earliest possible date.
APPENDIX ON OLYMPICS REPORTING CONDITIONS: Views from six sports journalists
The FCCC asked six veteran sports correspondents from six countries to comment on their experiences covering Beijing’s preparations for the Olympics. All have covered previous Games, and are currently stationed in Beijing. The reporters said that, overall, BOCOG (Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games) propaganda officials are relatively progressive and open compared to those in most other Chinese government agencies. However, the reporters found that access to spokespersons and newsmakers remains a major obstacle. Even when authorities speak on the record, the quality of statements and data is inadequate. Compared to previous Olympics, the biggest difference is access to athletes and training camps, which some journalists said seem to be cloaked in secrecy.
“Working on the Olympics is very much like doing everything else as a journalist in China. [Authorities] are suspicious about you. But I think BOCOG officials are quite progressive in some ways, and I think that some people in the foreign ministry are progressive. They want to give you as much information as possible but they can’t give you enough. My general impression is: frustrating but positive.” — A reporter for a French media organization.
“In some cases, I don’t think BOCOG is trying to restrict information. I think they just don’t understand the process of how journalism works, and how quickly responses are needed on news stories.” — A sports reporter who’s been in Beijing for more than a year.
“There is an ingrained suspicion of foreigners. The old view still persists: ‘why should we talk to the media?’” — A European news agency reporter.
ON ACCESS TO ATHLETES:
“Athletes are not available to the media. I have requested visits to training camps several times but have always been turned down.” — Francesco Liello, La Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy.
“I’ve had more access to American athletes here [in China] than to Chinese athletes.” — A reporter for a French media organization.
“Getting hold of a Liu Xiang [China’s champion hurdler] would be difficult anywhere in the world. But even if you want to talk to…a weightlifter, you have to call the sports ministry. An official passes you on to the weight-lifting department, which requests a fax, which often leads to a reply that an interview is ‘not convenient.’ ” — A European news agency reporter.
ON ACCESS TO OFFICIALS:
“I know who to call, but I don’t get any answers.” — A European sports reporter.
“There are an adequate number of press conferences, but no valuable information is given, ever.” — Francesco Liello, La Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy.
“Even for casual inquiries, such as how many seats in a stadium, you have to go through a huge rigmarole. Very straightforward information — like how much are they spending on the Olympics — is almost impossible to find out.” — A European news agency reporter.
“In Athens it was the case, too, that there were a lot of questions but not many answers. But here the information barrier is bigger and stronger. They are not used to dealing with the foreign media…They don’t really have the feeling that they have to answer questions.” — A reporter for a French media organization.
ON THE QUALITY AND RELIABILITY OF DATA:
“Data varies according to department. [Some officials] mix apples and pears. BOCOG often just picks up Xinhua News Agency reports, which are unreliable. They throw around estimates. Nailing down a figure doesn’t seem to be remotely important.” — A European news agency reporter.
“Veracity is very low… I don’t believe the statistics…BOCOG’s spokesmen just don’t have much credibility. I can’t verify anything.” – A sports reporter who’s been in Beijing for more than a year.