Gov't grudgingly allows freedom to o'seas media

The iconic portrait of Mao Zedong that still stares out over Tiananmen Square at the heart of Beijing is looking out over a very different city these days as the countdown to the Summer Olympic Games continues.

Mao’s impassive features are about to welcome half a million foreigners and 2 million visitors from around China for the 29th modern Olympiad in the Chinese capital kicking off Aug. 8.

Many of these visitors will be there in a professional and nonsporting capacity — the world’s press.

The idea that the Great Helmsman, who was no fan of press freedom and ruled China with an iron fist, will bear witness to thousands of foreign journalists running around with nothing to stop them from broadcasting what they wish or writing what they think is one that must have Mao spinning in his mausoleum on the other side of the vast plaza.

The crackdown in Tibet following the violence there in March and the fiasco that accompanied the Olympic torch relay on its travels through London, Paris and San Francisco piqued the international media’s attention.

But even without the controversy, this summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing are shaping up to be one of the biggest media gatherings in the world. There will be 5,600 print journalists and photographers as well as 16,000 broadcast journalists accredited for the Games, and many more unaccredited scribes are expected to travel to the Chinese capital as well.

Developments in recent weeks mean their ranks will swell still further, and many of these journalists will be interested in covering stories related to human rights or social issues in China as well as sport.

Beijing has come a long way since Mao died in 1976. It’s come a long way since his successor Deng Xiaoping died in 1997. But while the media has become freer in the past few decades, it is still not a free press by a long stretch of the imagination, and there is no tradition in China of free expression or press freedom.

Which leaves the Olympic organizers facing their biggest challenge to date in dealing with a media used to working without pressure from authorities.

A fine example of how this challenge will present itself came with the publication of a story in Britain’s Sunday Times earlier this year saying 10 people had died in the construction of the Olympic Stadium.

That prompted a swift response from the authorities.

“Nonsense,” they cried. “We deny that completely.”

So, how many died? “We’ll get back to you.”

Sure enough, within days, a deputy mayor of Beijing was brought out to announce that six had died in the construction of Beijing’s Olympic buildings.

The press handlers of the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee were well pleased with what they saw as an example of a public relations crisis handled well.

But it was hard at the time not to feel sorry for the press office at the spanking-new media center in the capital.

The Sunday Times story was mild compared with the kind of stories the British tabloid papers are going to want to do when they come to China. The nation already feels put upon generally by the coverage of the Tibetan riots, which Chinese officials say is biased.

For the man in the street in Beijing, this kind of negative reporting will only confirm the widely held belief that foreign journalists — foreigners in general in fact — are only interested in takng China down. This is unfair, as the majority of foreign correspondents in the country are positive in their coverage about much of what has happened in China in recent years, but remain critical of remaining restraints on freedom.

The Olympic organizers have hired an amiable and capable former CNN journalist, Jeff Ruffolo, to handle a lot of the foreign media issues for the Games, and he has done much to improve transparency ahead of the event. He is rarely off his mobile phone and has developed a number of useful ways of keeping the Beijing press corps informed of developments.

But what will he do when the masses of journalists descend on the capital?

Since the beginning of 2007, foreign journalists no longer need permission to travel outside Beijing to cover stories and can interview people without getting official permission, developments that press-freedom advocates hope are continued after the Games.

Sun Weijia, Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee’s director of media operations, went on the record talking about the idea of “media service” during and after the Olympic Games: “We hope that the concept of media service can be widely accepted after the Olympic Games because it is part of what we call Olympic Legacy. … Not just for sport events, but for other big events — say, the Shanghai World Expo in 2010, can also benefit from it.”

However, restrictions are still in place for domestic Chinese journalists who have to deal with rigid controls on what they do. The human rights group Amnesty Intl. has urged the authorities to ensure that the greater reporting freedom afforded to foreign journalists is extended equally to the domestic media.

“The authorities should cease the unwarranted censorship of broadcast, print and online media in China and take urgent measures to prevent the arbitrary detention, harassment or unfair dismissal of reporters and journalists in violation of their rights to freedom of expression,” Amnesty said.

The Tibetan riots and other events perceived as being anti-China will harm the prospects of greater freedom being continued. A vantage point for international camera teams to point their lenses on Tiananmen Square 24/7 looks set to be abandoned, leaving only Chairman Mao looking down on the square for the whole of the Games.

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