Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Is freedom of the press China's Olympic legacy?

Is freedom of the press China's Olympic legacy?
Keren Gottfried Oct 22, 2008

Cordweekly: Although the loosened censorship laws put in place for the Olympics were recently extended indefinitely, the rest of the world should not be fooled; these laws are barely even a beginning for Chinese freedom of expression

Last Friday, literally fifteen minutes before they were set to expire, the media freedoms afforded to foreign journalists during the Olympic Games were extended indefinitely.

The special regulations for the Olympics were created in January 2007, allowing foreign reporters to travel freely without special permission from foreign affairs departments.

They no longer had to be accompanied by Chinese assistants (read: watchdogs) when reporting, and were now allowed to interview anyone so long as written consent was acquired. In addition, many Internet firewalls were removed.

Have the 2008 Olympic Games set a precedent for China to respect freedom of the press?

Don’t think that this relaxation of media control came out of the goodness of the hearts of the governing Communist Party of China. The new rule set was a condition of winning the bid to host the summer games, stipulated by the International Olympic Committee.

Don’t think these rules mean meaningful media freedom, either.

The laws still ban foreign journalists from sensitive areas, including Tibet and culturally Tibetan communities in the West of China.

Implementation of the new rules is questionable. While urban centres respected them, areas in mainland China often completely ignored them.

As one foreign journalist described to the BBC, it was easy to pull out the rulebook in Beijing if an officer tried to stop you from doing your story. In the countryside, the police stopped reporters regardless, confiscating recording materials and detaining journalists in police stations.

Interviewees remain persecuted in China, where speaking with a journalist can mean losing your job or going to prison for causing unrest in the country.

The “Great Firewall of China” remains. Internet sites considered to be “unlawful, subversive or against public order” are blocked.

This includes media sites reporting on issues like democracy and Tiananmen Square, sites related to the persecution of the Falun Gong community, “unregulated content” like Livejournal, pornography websites and information promoting the independence of Taiwan.

Perhaps most heinously, the new rules do nothing for local reporters. Though they were permitted to serve as assistants to the foreign media during the Olympics, they were never allowed to do their own reporting unless “appropriately” written.

With all print, TV and radio media run by the Chinese government, you can imagine the sort of investigative reporting that they pursue. There are currently 44 Chinese journalists in prison for inappropriate reporting.

Figuring out why China engages in these practices is no simple task. It is more than an issue of a human rights-hating villain, despite the framing we often see in our media.

In fact, Chinese officials often cite their vilification by foreign media as a reason for controlling reporting freedoms in their country. They see it as a barrier to peaceful international relations.

The Chinese people want change, but their definition of change is the baby-step approach. They have had enough of revolution. With their tumultuous history, the threat of social disorder and chaos is a serious concern for them.

They worry that an extreme change in media freedom could overturn the calm they have achieved.

That’s about where my sympathy ends. This narrative helps us describe why China acts the way it does, but not why it ought to act the way it does.

I am not just talking about the right to freedom of the press, though I personally believe it is the bedrock of a thriving society.

I am talking about saving lives. Covering up issues by not allowing reporters to talk about them can kill people.

The milk poisoning fiasco last month killed four children and poisoned over 50,000 infants. Beijing denied releasing statistics and disallowed reporters from telling the story, despite the supposed relaxed media controls instituted in 2007.

How many mothers do you think would have continued to feed their babies the milk if they read about the disaster in the paper earlier rather than later?

I’d love to say that the Olympic media rules show China is moving in a positive direction, but if they are, they’re moving tortoise-slow.
OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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