One month before the world’s journalists arrive for the Beijing Olympics, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) calls on the host nation to make an enduring commitment to the principle of free reporting.
The FCCC urges the government to promise before the Games that it will permanently allow journalists to travel where they wish and interview anyone who is willing. These two principles are written into Olympic reporting regulations that expire in October. The FCCC asks the authorities to draw up new post-Olympic rules with input from resident foreign correspondents.
“The Chinese government has not yet lived up to its Olympic promise of complete reporting freedom and there are mixed signals about its willingness to do so,” said FCCC president Jonathan Watts. “In the run up to the Games, we have seen steps forward towards greater openness and at the same time backward to tighter controls. The government should show which way it intends to go by making access and transparency an enduring legacy of the Olympics.”
For foreign correspondents, the introduction of Olympic regulations has been the most positive development of the past two years. The rules, which came into effect on January 1, 2007, state that foreign journalists may travel freely and interview anyone who consents during the Olympic period. Previously, reporters needed permission to make reporting trips and risked being detained if they did not get it. But the rules are temporary, implementation is patchy and several areas of China have been declared off-limits to foreign reporters, such as Tibetan communities in Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai. Since I January 2007, the club has logged 259 cases of reporting interference.
The Sichuan earthquake highlighted the contradictions. In the first two weeks after the disaster, China won international praise for its openness in allowing foreign reporters to cover the relief operation. Since then, however, the FCCC has documented 16 cases where police temporarily detained or ejected reporters from areas where schools collapsed. Parents of quake victims have also been warned by police not to speak to the media. This is a serious threat. Evidence that Chinese citizens spoke with foreign media has been presented by prosecutors during trials that resulted in long sentences. Sources should be free to speak without fear of repercussions.
Openness requires access. But in recent months it has become more difficult for journalists to obtain visas, delaying or preventing correspondents from coming to China to report ahead of the Olympics. Many websites are blocked and arranging interviews with officials is often impossible. The club would welcome an opportunity to engage with the authorities and other interested parties in discussion about the post-Olympic regulatory environment. To clarify the existing situation, the FCCC has previously published an online Reporter’s Guide and will soon release a Know-Your-Rights Pocket Guide to relevant areas of Chinese law.
“The regulatory relaxation on correspondents’ movements is the one clear improvement in China’s reporting environment,” said Watts. “We call on the government to enhance implementation and make a permanent policy on media freedom in line with the country’s growing international status.”