Incident could open debate on media freedom

Chinese police knocked a British TV reporter to the ground and dragged him away from a pro-Tibet protest on Wednesday in an incident that is sure to exacerbate concerns about media freedom at the Beijing Olympics.

Police hauled John Ray, China correspondent for Independent Television News (ITN), from a park less than a mile from the Bird’s Nest stadium to a nearby restaurant, where they threw his shoes in the corner and sat on his arms. The police took this action shortly after foreign protesters unfurled a pro-Tibet banner.

“I wonder how this fits in with their solemn promise of free and unrestricted reporting,” Ray said shortly after his release. “This was a wrestling match.”

Ray, who is fully accredited to report in Beijing during the Olympic Games, said he was detained for 20 minutes and his equipment bag was confiscated despite repeated protestations – in Chinese – that he was a journalist.

He was thrown into a police van, his pants and shirt were covered in grime, and his hand was bruised from where a police officer stood on it, he said.

Cameraman Ben England was also manhandled and prevented from filming the protest by police.

Pro-Tibetan independence group Students for a Free Tibet said two of their protesters who unfurled the banner were arrested while six other members were detained for protesting nearby.

They included six Americans, an Israeli-American and a Japanese national.The British embassy expressed “strong concern” to the Chinese authorities about the incident, and the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) in Beijing demanded that police apologize to the ITN reporter.

“The FCC is appalled by this treatment of an accredited journalist within half a mile of the main Olympic stadium. We call on the authorities to return his equipment, to apologize and, if it is proved that a crime has been committed, to punish those responsible,” said FCC president Jonathan Watts.

Last month, the Beijing Olympics organizers said they were introducing three “protest parks” where anyone who wanted to express their opinions could do so. However, the demonstrations require approval and any protests that could harm “national unity” and “national, social or collective interests” are forbidden.

Wednesday’s incident is just the most recent of several since the Games started in which journalists have been harassed and prevented from working by police, including one in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

Last week, two Japanese journalists were forcibly detained and beaten up by police in northwest China, where they were reporting on a violent attack blamed on Muslim Uighur separatists in the restive Xinjiang region.

And the visiting press corps was furious when it arrived in China to discover that Internet access at the main Olympic media center was censored. Greater access was subsequently made available up to a point, but many sites, including any relating to Tibetan independence or banned spiritual movement the Falun Gong, remain off-limits.

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