Monday, June 16, 2008

Olympics: Television coverage in jeopardy because of Chinese security measures

Associated Press

BEIJING — International Olympic Committee officials say they have made progress resolving complaints about Chinese security measures which threaten TV coverage of the Beijing Games for billions of viewers.

“There has been some progress in the last two weeks, I can tell you that,” IOC member Kevan Gosper told The Associated Press on Monday following a meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, with IOC president Jacques Rogge. “But I can’t say we are there yet.”

In winning the games seven years ago, China promised the IOC that media would be free to report as they have at other games. With 7½ weeks to go before the opening Aug. 8, TV broadcasters are battling China’s communist government and security officials for permission to move reporters, equipment and satellite trucks freely around the sprawling city.

“I would not describe this as being at a crisis level,” Gosper added in the telephone interview. “Obviously, there are anxieties. But I don’t believe we are at a point where there will be a breakdown or threat (to the games).”

Gosper is chairman of the IOC press commission, and Rogge heads the radio and television commission. Also attending Monday’s talks was Hein Verbruggen, who leads the IOC coordination commission for the Beijing Games.

The games are supposed to showcase China as the rising power of the 21st century, and anything less than a perfect presentation will be seen as a failure by top officials and its 1.3 billion citizens.
At a stormy meeting May 29 in Beijing with TV executives — including U.S. rights holder NBC — IOC officials and top Chinese leadership, numerous disputes surfaced. At that time broadcasters were told it was unlikely they would be allowed to transmit live from venues such as Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

“We’ve been emphasizing to BOCOG (the acronym for the Beijing organizing committee) that the broadcasters must have freedom to move their vehicles around Beijing, and there must be absolutely no interference with the signals,” said Gosper, who did not indicate the Tiananmen issue had been resolved. “They (journalists) will have the ability of filing live without any censorship.”

Gosper said he had been speaking regularly with Manolo Romero, the general manager of Beijing Olympic Broadcasting. This IOC subsidiary coordinates and provides technical services for the television networks with rights to broadcast the Olympics, such as NBC.

Decisions about the games have always been made at the highest level of the government and Communist Party. In March, however, overall responsibility for the event was handed to the country’s vice president Xi Jinping, considered the leading contender to succeed President Hu Jintao in 2013.

“We just have to recognize that when we are calling for final requirements it’s got to be in a very detailed fashion,” Gosper said. “It’s just more difficult dealing with the Chinese bureaucracy than it is in normal circumstances.”

Right holders such as NBC — which pay for the rights to broadcast — and non-rights-holders are facing restrictions over where they’ll be allowed to set up satellite trucks and high-tech equipment. Chinese officials want the coverage limited to the sports venues. They fear losing control and dread the prospect of protests by pro-Tibet activists or the spiritual sect Falun Gong being caught on camera.

“We welcome any progress that the IOC can make to break the impasse and get us where we need to be,” said Sandy MacIntyre, director of news for AP Television News. APTN is the television arm of The Associated Press and a non-rights holder.

“Anything less will mean that the coverage of the games will be negatively impacted,” MacIntyre added.

MacIntrye said APTN began filing license applications almost two years ago for technical equipment and radio frequencies, but he said certain key applications were “still stuck in the works.”

Other broadcasters face the same problems, including Sydney-based Global Vision Networks. The satellite service provider is offering services to Olympics sponsors, rights holders and non-rights holders.

“Satellite transmissions have always been more difficult in China than in other parts of Asia, but we could do them,” said Kevin Fleck, China manager for the Sydney company. “During the Olympics all the rules have changed.”

Fleck’s company hopes to arrange transmissions for broadcasters who want to report on stories away from the venues. He said he’s also run into roadblocks trying to arrange satellite feeds for some of the games biggest sponsors such as General Electric, Coca-Cola and Panasonic.

“Media from around the world are all sending journalists,” Fleck said. “They are hiring our makeup and our cameras and mikes, and they are going to ride around Beijing and come up with their stories. Then they’re going to try and link up with whatever country they are from — getting on the morning show back home — and they’re not going to be able to do it. And they are going to be angry.”

The IOC says about 2,000 TV trucks usually go in and out of Olympic venues every day during the games. And about 30,000 journalists — accredited and non-accredited — are expected to cover the games.

Shaken by protests on international legs of the Olympic torch relay following the outbreak of deadly rioting March 14 in Tibet, China’s authoritarian government seems to be backtracking on promises to let reporters work as they have in previous Olympics.

The Chinese government is on the record repeatedly assuring full freedom to report.

In the preface to the Beijing organizing committee’s 267-page “Service Guide for Foreign Media Coverage,” organizing committee president Liu Qi wrote the following:
“Premier Wen Jiabao promised that in the spirit of ‘One World, One Dream,’ the government will provide services of an Olympic standard to athletes, officials, spectators and the media in order to facilitate their participation and enjoyment of the games. The freedom of foreign journalists in their news coverage would also be ensured.”

A law enacted 18 months ago gave reporters freedom to move around the country, although Tibet has been off limits. The law has generally worked, although reporting remains a problem in the provinces.

In recent months the government has tightened visa rules, particularly targeting foreign students. The government fears many would side with activist groups if protests break out. About 10,000 athletes are also expected for the games, the most difficult group for the government to control.

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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