Thursday, November 08, 2007

Where's the IOC's voice on press freedom in China?

Special to Globe and Mail Update by PHELIM KINE

HONG KONG — Today is Journalists' Day in China, but there's no reason for celebration by reporters who cover the world's most populous nation.

Like any other day, journalists in China will be subjected to routine harassment by a government that continues to defy its pledges to a free media. What's dismaying this year is that the International Olympic Committee — an organization that says it is dedicated to "ethical principles" and "preservation of human dignity" — is passively accepting such blatant violations of the Chinese government's Olympic-related media-freedom commitments.

In order to play host to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the Chinese government promised the IOC that it would relax its chokehold on foreign media coverage during the Games. New, temporary regulations permitting foreign journalists to talk to any consenting interviewees went into effect on Jan. 1, freeing correspondents from a long-standing regulatory handcuff that requires government approval for almost all interviews. That should be good news for the many Canadian journalists who will join the more than 20,000 foreign journalists who will cover the Games in Beijing.

The temporary regulations look good on paper. Yet, foreign correspondents continue to harassed, detained and intimidated by government functionaries, security forces and growing ranks of plainclothes thugs who appear to operate at official behest. The IOC's failure to speak out about such violations will put those journalists who go to Beijing at risk of similar abuses.

In the past two months alone, an Agence France-Presse reporter and an American colleague were detained in a public park in central Beijing for the "crime" of taking photographs of an informal matchmaking service. Guards seized and roughed up a foreign television crew that had discovered an illegal detention centre in Beijing for petitioners — rural citizens who come by the thousands to Beijing seeking redress for official injustices. The journalists were turned over to police, who held them for six hours and accused them of, among other offences, "illegally filming a government building." And a BBC correspondent's trip to cover simmering unrest in a village in Hebei province resulted in a day in police detention; he later discovered that the bolts holding his car's wheels to the chassis had been tampered with.

It would be disingenuous for the IOC to say it is unaware of routine violations of media freedom in China. These have been meticulously documented and published by the media, as well as by groups such as Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Reporters Without Borders.

So how has the IOC responded? Has it criticized China's failure to honour its commitments? Anthony Edgar, the IOC's head of media operations, said in Beijing in September: "The Chinese government committed itself a long time ago to media working in China as freely as in other countries, in accordance with IOC and international practices, [and] I think they are working well at the moment." What would have to occur for the IOC to judge it not to be working well?

Of course, China hasn't just made commitments on media freedom to the IOC. It has made them to its own people through its constitution and to the rest of the world by signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

None of the attacks or threats against foreign journalists come as a surprise to Chinese reporters and the local assistants, researchers and translators, who continue to labour under the boot of a state propaganda machine that viciously punishes those who fail to toe the Communist Party line on what constitutes acceptable news. Sadly, China made commitments to the IOC only about freedom for foreign journalists. But, as China fails to meet even these agreements, the IOC has an obligation to talk straight in private and public about reality on the ground.

Article 51 of the Olympic Charter stipulates that the IOC must 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." IOC members have responded promptly and publicly about their concerns that the Chinese government may not be able to deliver on its environmental commitments for the Beijing Games; surely it can do the same for journalists? Indeed, the IOC has stood up to China on other issues. It balked at a plan to stage beach volleyball in Tiananmen Square, where tanks and troops crushed the student democracy demonstrations in 1989. The Chinese government agreed to relocate the competition.

The IOC's reluctance to speak out on press freedom is especially curious given its past attention to less pressing issues. When some high-spirited members of the U.S. Olympic team wore Mickey Mouse ears or carried signs that read "Hi, Mom" during the opening ceremonies of the 1988 Seoul Games, the IOC fired off a letter to the U.S. Olympic Committee decrying "scandalous" behaviour that gave the world "a very bad impression" of U.S. Olympians.

This hesitance to speak clearly to the Chinese government about press freedom and other key human-rights issues should end. With less than a year to the Beijing Games, it's past time for the IOC — and national Olympic committees, including Canada's — to rediscover its voice. China will not call off the Games over disputes about media freedom or human rights, so the IOC has leverage to demand changes in how China treats journalists. A failure to act now will leave a stain on the IOC's reputation that will linger long after the last Olympic athlete leaves Beijing.

Phelim Kine is a researcher in Human Rights Watch's Asia division.

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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