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(New York) - The International Olympic Committee (IOC) should turn words into action and immediately establish a reporting mechanism for violations of media freedoms in China, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch and other groups have documented many violations of China’s promise to allow press freedom in exchange for hosting the Olympic Games.

On August 14, 2008, the IOC spokesperson, Giselle Davies, ended months of IOC silence by saying that the committee “disapproved of any attempts to hinder a journalist who is going about doing his job seemingly within the rules and regulations.” Over the past year, the IOC has been provided extensive documentation of such abuses, including physical assaults of journalists, but has not publicly spoken about the issue or challenged the Chinese government.

“The IOC’s public expression of concern is welcome, but it won’t have any effect without real action,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The International Olympic Committee’s failure to address this problem highlights the urgent need for mechanisms to prevent further abuses.”

Human Rights Watch has documented almost daily violations of China’s commitment to the IOC to allow the foreign media “complete freedom to report” during the Beijing Games, as stipulated by the Chinese government’s temporary regulations, which allow foreign journalists to speak to “any consenting interviewee” between January 1, 2007 and October 17, 2008 (click here for a list of Chinese officials’ promises and statements made about human rights and the Olympics).

Since the Games opened on August 8, foreign journalists in Beijing have told Human Rights Watch that surveillance and harassment by security personnel has intensified. Those security personnel include plainclothes police, official Olympics volunteers, and Beijing citizens in neighborhood committees who reporters say attempt to deliberately intimidate them and their sources by photographing and video-recording their movements. “Today I was checking one of (Beijing’s) parks and I was followed at times by five people, some of them filming me and taking photos of me. I feel like a target,” a foreign journalist told Human Rights Watch on August 7.

Human Rights Watch said that the IOC should:

  • establish a 24-hour hotline in Beijing for foreign journalists to report violations during the course of the games;
  • demand that the Chinese government investigate cases of arrests, detentions, and harassment of media and ensure that there will be no further abuses;
  • publicly press the Chinese government to disclose the whereabouts of sources who have disappeared after giving interviews to foreign media; and
  • investigate all incidents of abuse of foreign journalists and their sources and report on them publicly in China before the opening of the September Paralympics to help avert similar media freedom abuses.

In the past 10 days, Human Rights Watch has documented incidents of abuse of foreign media freedom, including:

August 13: John Ray, a correspondent for Britain’s ITN channel, was arrested as he reported on a small protest near the Bird’s Nest Stadium. Ray said he was “bundled away, pushed to the floor and pinned down before being manhandled into the back of a police van.” He suffered minor bruises.

August 12: While waiting in line to register at a police post outside Korla, Xinjiang province, an Associated Press journalist and photographer were approached by a policeman wearing a flak jacket and helmet. The policeman pushed the reporter, pointed his assault rifle at him, and declared: “This is Chinese territory. You have to obey the rules.” After registering, the journalists returned to their vehicle and continue their journey.

August 11: British photographer Jack Hill of The Times newspaper was detained for seven hours in Kuqa, Xinjiang province, while trying to cover the aftermath of deadly bombings in the town. Police said that Hill’s travel documents – a receipt for the ongoing renewal of his J-2 journalist visa which immigration police in Beijing assured him would be acceptable to authorities – were inadequate. The Kuqa police threatened Hill with arrest if he attempted to leave the police station for his hotel. Hill was only released after a colleague asked at a Beijing news conference later that day about the justification for Hill’s detention.

August 8: Police detained an Associated Press writer and photographer in Yining, Xinjiang province, for 45 minutes. Police forbade the journalists from using their cell phones, videotaped the two journalists, and deleted images from the photographer’s camera.

August 7: The Chinese government denied an entry visa to Radio Free Asia Tibetan service broadcaster Dhondup Gonsar, a US citizen who had already been accredited to cover the Beijing Olympics.

August 7: Police manhandled foreign journalists who covered a small protest by American Christians in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and tried to take the reporters’ microphones and notebooks.

August 6: “Angry and aggressive” uniformed police grabbed and briefly detained ESPN producer Arty Berko while he was attempting to photograph a protest banner erected near the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium in Beijing. After he was released by police, Berko said he was “physically accosted” by plainclothes onlookers apparently angered by his efforts to take photographs at the protest scene.

August 5: Paramilitary troops in Kashgar, Xinjiang province, physically attacked and injured Masami Kawakita, a photographer with the Tokyo Chunichi Sports newspaper, and Shinji Katsuta, a reporter with the Nippon Television Network, as they were attempting to cover the aftermath of the violence which killed 16 policemen in the city the previous day. The journalists’ employers, along with the Kyodo news service and several witnesses, said the paramilitaries forcibly removed the two journalists from a public street, beat them and damaged their equipment.

August 4: A group of police and guards forcibly seized the camera of a Hong Kong-based journalist while he and a group of foreign journalists interviewed bystanders adjacent the scene of lethal attack earlier that day against border police in Kashgar, Xinjiang.

“It’s up to the Chinese government and the IOC to ensure media freedom during the Beijing Games, and so far both have failed miserably,” Richardson said. “If the IOC is willing to acknowledge that this problem exists, it should do all it can to prevent any more abuses. The committee might also examine its own complicity in the problem.”

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