IHT: Friday, April 18, 2008
The Associated Press
PARIS: Secret police tails. Reprimands or perhaps even expulsion for writing about topics sensitive for the Chinese Communist Party. Big Brother propaganda apparatchiks working overtime to stifle negative news.
These were some of the grim scenarios painted Friday at a Paris conference by press freedom groups about working conditions that foreign reporters might face at the Beijing Olympics this August.
China's viewpoint wasn't heard: the two-day meeting's organizers said Beijing Games officials, the International Olympic Committee, leading sports manufacturers and NBC, which holds the U.S. rights to broadcast the Olympics, declined or did not respond to invitations.
China insists it will keep promises made in Beijing's winning bid in 2001 that reporters will be allowed to cover the games as they did previous ones. But Chinese officials stop short of explicitly guaranteeing unrestricted reporting.
"We welcome media from all around the world to come to Beijing and report about the Olympics. We'll follow the practice of the Olympic Games, keep our bidding promise and provide convenient support to reporters covering the games," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said this week. "In the meantime, I hope they will be objective and balanced in reporting, and show their professional ethics and quality in their work."
In the wake of violent anti-government protests in Tibet and across western China last month, China has detained journalists and banned them from parts of the country. Speakers at the conference agreed that reporters who limit themselves to covering sports in Beijing will likely be fine.
"If you've not been to China before, you are going to be wowed by the modernization," said Merle Goldman of Harvard University, author of the book "From Comrade to Citizen: The Struggle for Political Rights in China."
She also said, however, that China's government "is frightened by its own people" and warned of virulent nationalism bubbling among younger Chinese.
Western reporters in China have recently received aggressive phone calls, e-mails and text messages, some with death threats, supposedly from ordinary Chinese complaining about alleged bias in coverage of the Tibetan protests.
The harassment has targeted foreign television broadcasters CNN in particular and broadened after mobile phone numbers and other information for reporters from The Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today were posted on several Web sites in China.
Chinese journalist Gao Yu, imprisoned for nearly six years in the 1990s on charges of leaking state secrets, said that foreign reporters should expect police surveillance because it "is just run of the mill."
"If you are only doing sports, I guess you will be quite free. But journalists will have problems if they concern themselves with things that don't make the Chinese government happy," said Gao, who traveled from Beijing for the Paris conference. Such topics include Taiwan, Tibet and China's western Xinjiang region, as well as the government's treatment of the banned Falun Gong movement, dissidents and AIDS infections, to name just some.
"At the most serious, you could be expelled or possibly be warned or the foreign ministry or others will talk to your media organization," Gao added.
In fact, expulsions have been rare over the past decade or more. Warnings are more common: China's foreign ministry this week summoned CNN's Beijing bureau chief to protest after commentator Jack Cafferty referred to China's leaders as a "bunch of goons and thugs."
Another concern is the safety of Chinese citizens who work for foreign reporters, doing translation, arranging interviews and providing tips. They "may well be most at risk" if the interviews or information are deemed sensitive, said Paul Steiger, former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal and chairman of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
Some 30,000 officially accredited and non-accredited journalists a ratio of roughly three reporters for every athlete will likely be in Beijing.
The Associated Press expects its reporters will be able to work in Beijing as they have at previous Olympics, Steve Wilson, the international news agency's European sports editor, told the Paris conference.
And in today's market-driven China, the prospect of reporters in trouble offers an economic opportunity. Chinese legal scholar Li Baiguang left laminated advertising cards for participants in Paris, offering a 24-hour telephone hot line for "foreign journalists who may need legal advice during the Olympic Games."
"In the event of search of detention," said the card, "remember that you have the right to remain silent and to consult a lawyer."