(Hong Kong) - The Chinese government continues to block and threaten foreign journalists despite repeated promises to lift media freedom restrictions ahead of the Olympic Games, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.
The Chinese government has prohibited local Chinese-language media from publishing unflattering news ahead of the Games, leaving foreign media as the only source of factual reporting about a wide range of crucial issues in China today. But systematic surveillance, obstruction, intimidation of sources, and pressure on local assistants are hobbling foreign correspondents’ efforts to pursue investigative stories.
“Proponents and critics of the Beijing Games agreed on one thing – that fewer restrictions for international media and scrutiny of China at this time would constitute progress,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch. “Yet the Chinese government – with the help of the International Olympic Committee – has done its best to impede progress.”
The 71-page report, “China’s Forbidden Zones: Shutting the Media out of Tibet and Other ‘Sensitive’ Stories,” draws on more than 60 interviews with correspondents in China between December 2007 and June 2008. It documents how foreign correspondents and their sources continue to face intimidation and obstruction by government officials or their proxies when they pursue stories that can embarrass the authorities, expose official wrongdoing, or document social unrest.
Some journalists have suffered serious threats to their lives or safety. Most recently, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has declined to investigate death threats made against more than 10 correspondents and their family members in March and April 2008. In September 2007, senior Reuters correspondent Chris Buckley was beaten and detained by plainclothes thugs after interviewing rural citizens who had come to Beijing seeking redress for abuses committed by local authorities who were held at an illegal detention facility in Beijing. The following month, a European television news journalist suffered similar treatment while trying to report on unrest in Hebei province.
China is also threatening to restrict entry to news organizations that do not toe the line. In November 2007, a foreign cable news network that had publicly complained about previous harassment and detention by Anhui province officials was informed by a Chinese foreign ministry official that its accreditation to cover the Olympic Games was in jeopardy. A number of news organizations have reported difficulties obtaining visas and accreditation in advance of the Games, and several have begun to publicly voice concerns about restricted access to venues such as Tiananmen Square.
“These constraints limit what the estimated 25,000 correspondents going to China for the Olympics can cover,” said Richardson. “Journalists who try to report objectively on the complex realities of modern China are facing real risks, despite the government’s commitments to give them greater freedom.”
In 2001, the Chinese government promised the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that it would respect free expression in the run-up to the Beijing Games. In May 2007, the government announced new freedoms for accredited foreign journalists in the “Service Guide for Foreign Media” (http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/05/31/china16029.htm). The temporary regulations, in effect from January 1, 2007 until October 17, 2008, allow foreign journalists to freely conduct interviews with any consenting Chinese organization or citizen. The regulations do not allow similar freedoms for Chinese journalists.
While some correspondents have noted improvements brought about by the new regulations, the majority say the regulations have done little to enable them to report on issues that government officials are determined to conceal. Those include high-level corruption, ethnic conflicts, social unrest, public health crises, and the workings of China’s large detention system, including prisons, labor camps, mental hospitals, and police stations.
For example, national and local authorities were unusually open to media coverage of their rapid responses following the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan. Yet as soon as the news turned to those authorities’ possible culpability for not doing more in advance to minimize damage, they reverted to more obstructionist tactics. On June 3, police forcibly dragged an Associated Press reporter and two photographers away from the scene of a protest by the parents of student victims. It remains unclear whether foreign correspondents will be able to report growing public demands for accountability.
In Tibetan areas, the site of the biggest government crackdown since the June 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, news remains difficult to report. Although the government announced on June 26 that it would reopen Tibet to foreign journalists, it has specified that “previous procedures” will apply. Those “previous procedures” were an onerous application process that, according to one veteran foreign correspondent, made going to Tibet “virtually impossible.” In addition, the fear of retribution for talking to foreign journalists remains so high that Tibetans are unlikely to be willing to approach them with important information. That means correspondents are unlikely to be able to verify the origins of the protests or determine how many were ultimately killed, injured, or arrested.
Officials have also sought to undermine foreign journalists by intimidating their more vulnerable Chinese sources. In several cases, correspondents told Human Rights Watch that officials interrogating them focused on obtaining the names, mobile phone numbers and locations of their local sources. One source for a foreign television journalist was beaten so badly that he required hospitalization; after his release, he was placed under house arrest. Other foreign correspondents spoke of sources’ subsequently being fired from their jobs or being threatened – sometimes with criminal charges – by local authorities.
“In recent months foreign journalists have continued to provide important coverage of serious issues in China,” said Richardson. “But neither they nor their sources should have to endure abuses ranging from harassment to death threats in order to do so, especially in light of the rights ostensibly granted by the temporary regulations.”
Article 51 of the Olympic Charter obliges the IOC to take “all necessary steps in order to ensure the fullest coverage by the different media and the widest possible audience in the world for the Olympic Games.”
Despite Beijing’s documented record of ignored pledges and denial of access, the International Olympic Committee has not publicly criticized the Chinese government’s violations of media freedom pledges. Indeed, some IOC representatives have publicly praised China’s media freedom. In April 2008, while foreign journalists were barred from Tibet and some were receiving death threats amidst a state media-driven vilification of “western media bias,” the head of the IOC press commission, Kevan Gosper, praised the “open-mindedness” of the Chinese government in “supporting the interests of ... international journalists.”
“The corrosive effects of the violations of Olympics-related media freedom pledges will linger long after the last athletes have left Beijing,” Richardson said. “It’s in the interest of the IOC and the foreign heads of state who will attend the Beijing Olympics to try to ensure that media freedom is a lasting legacy of the Games rather than a broken promise.”