Censorship concerns at Beijing Olympics
By Megan Murray
On July 13, 2001, after what the Chinese Olympic Committee hailed as a “jubilant and sleepless night in Beijing,” national Olympic committee members, sponsor companies and the people of the People’s Republic of China held their breath as then International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch announced that Beijing had won the bid for the 2008 XXIV Summer Olympic Games.
Cheers rang out. Cameras snapped. Warbled notes of the Chinese national anthem crackled at first and then oozed like smoke out of the old Soviet speakers at the 112th IOC Session in Moscow. Back home, diplomats and corporate entrepreneurs eagerly spread out the blueprints for a majestic Olympic village. The Beijing Olympic Games Bidding Committee set the overall budget for the games at a whopping $2 billion. The capital city of China was officially front-page news.
Addressing the global media Wang Wei, Secretary General of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, promised international correspondents in 2001 that his country would lift all travel restrictions and graciously accept their presence without restricting access to coverage. “We will give the media complete freedom to report when they come to China,” he told reporters after China had bagged the host city spot for 2008.
Seven years later, diplomats, businessmen and Olympic committee members grin as they watch the annual gross domestic product in China cap an 11.4 percent increase in the past year, the highest growth rate in 13 years for China. In this regard, things couldn’t be better.
However, recent protests over China’s continued funding for the military regimes of Sudan and Burma–as well as the closure of Tibet, where violence continues at the hands of the Chinese government–have led to the global media weighing in more heavily on China’s politics. In a major attempt to squelch any sort of reporting that could taint China’s national image during their international “coming out” party, China’s General Administration of Press and Publication is cracking down.
A government agency responsible for enforcing China’s media regulations, GAPP licenses and monitors publications and oversees the investigation and prosecution of illegal publications and the illegal activities of publishers.
According to the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, this gives GAPP full authority to not only prosecute, but also restrict any media outlets from publishing. “Because all publishers (including Internet publishers) in China are required to be licensed by the GAPP, that agency also has the power to deny people the right to publish and completely shut down any publisher who fails to follow its dictates,” the commission said.
After Beijing won the bid for the 2008 Summer Games, GAPP began working with the Beijing Organizing Committee. Today they have developed a database of more than 28,000 national and foreign reporters affiliated with the 2008 Summer Games. According to the Ministry of Public Security in China, the database was created to better regulate journalists who present “antagonistic elements” in their reporting.
Since January 2007, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China reports that more than 180 international journalists have met some sort of interference with their work from Chinese officials, ranging from heightened surveillance and intimidation of sources to reprimands and arrest.
In 2007, the FCCC polled 163 foreign correspondents in China, asking them if they thought Wang Wei and the government had fulfilled their initial promise to give the media “complete freedom” of reporting. More than 67 percent replied, “no.”
Many media organizations around the world have begun to fight back. Reporters Without Borders–an agency for journalists combating human rights violations and censorship–has received international attention for their outspoken criticism of China in light of the coming Beijing Games.
Going back as far as November 2007, RWB has been raising awareness of Chinese officials’ failure to live up to their promises of peace and prosperity. “Chinese officials are so afraid of any negative image about the games, they are ready to lie about anything,” said Paris-based RWB affiliate Vincent Reynaud in USA Today.
On April 7, RWB staged a protest in Paris as the Olympic torch relay passed through town. In eight locations throughout the city, members of the organization managed to display flags that portrayed the Olympic rings as handcuffs. The demonstration garnered support from the French government, with nearly 40 members of parliament joining RWB members outside the National Assembly in support of human rights in Tibet.
As the Olympic torch entered Charléty Stadium, it was met by a surge of boos and whistles. Police officers moved quickly to confiscate any RWB flags and Tibetan flags, only allowing Chinese flags and the official logo of the Olympics to be waved proudly. Those who resisted were arrested.
But the RWB protests were about more than Tibet, says Andy Miah, a supervising professor at the International Olympic Academy postgraduate seminar in Greece.
“It’s certainly relevant that foreign journalists are being severely inhibited from reporting in Tibet, but [Reporters Without Borders’] concern is broader and involves a range of concerns about media freedom within China,” he said in a March 28 interview. “I suspect that this episode will shape the coverage of the Beijing Games until its final day.”
Even when journalists don’t face harassment or detainment, more subtle forms of censorship can still make reporting in China frustrating. With the recent protest in Tibet, journalists are already facing heightened security, and the coming games won’t make it any easier to access information.
Jill Drew is a foreign service correspondent for the Washington Post based in Beijing. Even though the government has officially banned access to Tibetan areas for foreign journalists, Drew recently flew to Kathmandu in Nepal to talk to people at the airport who had just come from Lhasa, Tibet.
“The only people who would speak were a few foreign tourists,” she writes through e-mail. “They described what they saw, offering little slivers of events. It is very difficult to get a complete picture. Oftentimes, journalists have to resort to a ‘he said, she said,’ reporting of events.”
Drew has not worked directly with GAPP or the Beijing Organizing Committee, but she has noticed a lack of enthusiasm on their part to contribute toher reporting.
“The organizing committee cannot censor our reports, of course, but like any organization, they can choose to be helpful or unhelpful,” she writes. “Answers to questions are often vague; spokesmen rarely provide specifics on questions like what measures Beijing is taking to ensure clean air during the games.”
According to Miah, much of the journalistic censorship stemming from GAPP comes as a result of the Golden Shield Project–an Internet surveillance project that was installed in 1998 by the governing Communist Party. Nicknamed the “Great Firewall of China,” it serves as a network firewall that blocks restricted Web site content. The firewall functions as GAPP’s power source for monitoring journalists in Beijing.
“The Golden Shield Project is of great concern, but there are interesting nuances about the Internet that we should bear in mind,” said Miah. “It is apparent that individual users find ways of getting messages through, without having to rely on the major platforms, such as YouTube. The challenge occurs when any single platform becomes too celebrated, and then censorship mechanisms kick in.”
Miah also spoke about the potential for the Non-Accredited Media Center, an agency that was originally introduced during the 2000 Sydney Games. The center would allow 10,000 journalists (including freelancers and bloggers), along with 2,000 journalists from local media outlets in China who are unaffiliated with the Olympic Games to write freely about the atmosphere of the games.
In an official statement, the Beijing Organizing Committee encouraged unregistered journalists to work through the NAMC. “Media are concerned not only about who won a gold medal and set a world record during the Olympics, but also about the Olympics hosting country’s landscape, the hosting city’s characteristics, local people’s lives, how they participate in the Olympics,” said Wang Hui, vice-director of the Beijing Organizing Committee’s media and communications department.
While the Beijing Organizing Committee’s support seems sincere, Miah is unsure of what effect censorship in China will have on free reporting during the games. “It’s very difficult to gauge the level of regulation that will surround the Beijing Games compared to recent, previous games. In some sense, this might be the most regulated games to date. This might sound alarmist, but coheres with the fact that post 9/11 games have had much more financial investment into security, and this is the first Olympics since then where internal, domestic political unrest and neighboring conflicts are apparent.”
While an open market has helped improve China’s economic prosperity and stability–and subsequently sealed their position as a credible host for the Olympic Games–continued protest from the international community could affect how the coming Beijing Games are viewed. Consequently, continued censorship toward international media could backfire and influence how journalists will portray these Olympic Games in print and on screen.
As both a journalist and activist, Tala Dowlatshahi of New York’s Reporters Without Borders chapter says that the only way to guarantee readers are getting the entire picture in this summer is to broaden their horizons. Contrasting our deregulated Internet to that of China’s, Dowlatshahi urges young readers in the United States to read up on everything that’s available to them here and to make up their own minds about what the games are really about this year.
“Young people should be asked to look at different sources of news, to support independent information,” she said. “A lot of Americans take for granted the information that they’re given, but Chinese news groups just don’t have that–it’s important to recognize those rights that they don’t have access to.”
Meagan Murray is a senior journalism major. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.