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Beijing Olympics media freedom sham

Journalism crackdown Beijing OlympicsNext year China is to have the honour of holding the Olympics. The international prestige granted to the nation lucky enough to act as host is eagerly sought after, and the competition between countries all looking to bring the Olympics home can reach almost comical proportions.

However, as journalists prepare to head east next year to cover the event, there has been cause for concern. China has a bleak reputation when it comes to freedom of the press, having a history of media censorship that few nations can match.

Media workers visiting the country can expect all manner of coercive measures from phone tapping to intimidation and arrest. Journalists are often branded with a special 'J' mark on their visas to advertise their occupation to authorities, with hotel managers instructed to contact local security if somebody with a dreaded 'J' mark checks in.

Recently however the government appeared to have a change of heart on its relationship to the media. In December 2006 the secretary-general of the Beijing Olympic Games Bid Committee, Weng Wei, promised to introduce temporary measures designed to give foreign journalists freedom of movement up to and during the Olympic proceedings.

Stating that they would have 'complete freedom to report when they come to China' this show of good faith went a long way with the International Olympic Committee, which ultimatly determind the outcome of their decision to permit the games to be hosted in Bejing.

Not to be caught out, Liu Jianchao — who is a spokesman for the foreign ministery — stated at a press conference that 'It is crystal clear that as long as the interviewee agrees, you can do your reporting'.

But since January several journalists have spoken out against continuing state censorship which, if the alleged 'temporary measures' are anything to go by, should not be taking place.

Journalism crackdown Beijing Olympics According to the international media pressure group 'Reporters Without Borders' (RWB) the Beijing Organising Committee has so far refused to take concrete steps to loosen up on censorship. Despite the earlier promise, there has been no policy enacted to provide adequate access for the many foreign journalists looking to enter the country next year.

Even worse, government bodies are remaining tight-lipped on the multitude of journalists within their own borders who remain subject to criminal penalty. One venerable writer, Zhang Jianhong, has been imprisoned for the writing of an article on China's human rights record and the treatment of journalists in particular.

Calls for his release have fallen on deaf ears, despite the fact that he suffers from a rare nerve disorder. The refusal of the authorities to make good on their promise after what was initial optimism has caused many to lose heart, with RWB claiming that 'This silence allows the Chinese government to shamelessly continue its massive human rights violations.'

Additionally, Zhao Yan, a researcher for the New York Times, was only released last week after serving a three-year sentence. He is widely regarded as just one of many journalists who were or are imprisoned for the crime of doing their job.

Amnesty International fears that journalists now actually fare worse than they did before the earlier announcements regarding greater media freedom. In a recent press release, Catherine Baber, Deputy Asia Pacific Director at Amnesty International, commented that 'There has been a renewed crackdown on journalists and internet users in the past year — a fact that makes government commitments to 'complete media freedom' ring hollow'.

Speaking passionately on the situation, she went on to state that "Gleaming stadiums and spectacular parades will be worthless if journalists and human rights activists still can not speak out freely, if people are still being tortured in prison, or if the government continues its secrecy about the thousands of people executed".

Only time will tell how journalists — native or otherwise — fare next year as hundreds of thousands of Olympic fans descend on Beijing. Whether they can do their job is an important question, but one thing is for certain — renewed media crackdowns and infringments on human rights will only lead to greater scrutiny from the international press.



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