August 22, 2008 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Olympic disaster for free expression in China

With just two days to go to the closing ceremony, Reporters Without Borders today gave a negative evaluation of respect for free speech during the Beijing games. This repression will be remembered as one of the defining characteristics of the Beijing games. The International Olympic Committee will have to accept much of responsibility for this failure.
With just two days to go to the closing ceremony, Reporters Without Borders today gave a negative evaluation of respect for free speech during the Beijing games. While most foreign reporters were able to cover the sports events without a problem, police and their civilian auxiliaries repeatedly prevented journalists from covering demonstrations or investigating subjects which the government regards as sensitive. "As we feared, the Beijing Olympic games have been a period conducive to arrests, convictions, censorship, surveillance and harassment of more than 100 journalists, bloggers and dissidents," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard said. "This repression will be remembered as one of the defining characteristics of the Beijing games. The International Olympic Committee will have to accept much of responsibility for this failure. We think it is vital that the IOC's members should draw the necessary conclusions in their choice of a president to succeed Jacques Rogge when his term of office is up in a year's time. "We also call for respect for free expression to become one of the criteria when selecting cities to host the games. Although the Olympic movement repeated its Beijing mistake when it chose the Russian city of Sochi for the 2014 Winter Games, Reporters Without Borders will continue to campaign for guarantees for press freedom during sports events. "We hail all those in China and abroad who did not stop pressing for more freedom of expression before the Olympic Games," Ménard added. "We will remain vigilant in case the post-Olympic period ushers in a new wave of repression." No Chinese prisoner of conscience has been released since the games began on 8 August. But several (including Sun Lin, Huang Qi and Hu Jia) have seen a deterioration in their prison conditions and their health. A total of 31 journalists, bloggers and free speech activists have been arrested or given prison sentences since the start of the year. Surveillance of foreign reporters was stepped up before and during the games. "They don't stop following me, filming me and photographing me," a foreign news agency journalist based in Beijing said. "I think twice before interviewing Chinese about sensitive issues for fear that they could be arrested." Commitments to respect press freedom were nonetheless made at the highest government level. President Hu Jintao himself said in the presence of the foreign press on 1 August that China would "facilitate the work" of foreign journalists "before and after the Beijing Olympic Games." Liu Binjie, the person in charge of the General Administration of Press and Publications, said the "open door" for the foreign media "will not close after the games." A few figures At least 22 foreign journalists were attacked or arrested or otherwise obstructed during the games. Two US video-bloggers, Brian Conley and Jeffrey Rae, are currently detained in Beijing for covering the activities of pro-Tibetan activists. They have been sentenced to 10 days in prison for "disrupting public order." Reporters Without Borders calls for their immediate release. At least 50 Beijing-based human rights activists were placed under house arrest, harassed or forced to leave the capital during the games. At least 15 Chinese citizens were arrested for requesting permission to demonstrate. Dozens of others, including the blogger Zhou "Zola" Shuguang and the handicapped petitioner Chen Xiujuan, were physically prevented by police from travelling to the capital. At least 47 pro-Tibet activists, mostly members or supporters of Students for a Free Tibet, were arrested in Beijing. Ability of foreign press to work in China In 2001, Wang Wei promised "total freedom for the press" during the Olympic Games. This promise was not kept. 1. Violence and obstruction: Reporters Without Borders is aware of 22 incidents between 6 and 22 August in China. Properly accredited foreign journalists such as British television news reporter John Ray were manhandled or, as in the case of two Japanese reporters in the northwestern city of Kashgar (Xinjiang), were arrested. 2. Freedom of movement: Journalists were able to visit the province of Xinjiang but found it hard to get into Tibet. The foreign press was prevented from visiting the Beijing home of Zeng Jinyan, the wife of imprisoned dissident Hu Jia. In the weeks prior to the games, several journalists were prevented from working freely in Sichuan, the province hit by the 12 May earthquake. 3. Freedom to interview: Many journalists complained of police or civilian volunteers intervening when they tried to interview Chinese. A news agency reporter said that, in the course of a week, at least five of the people she had interviewed were subsequently arrested. Two journalists - one working for a Hong Kong daily and the other for Radio Free Asia's Tibetan service - were refused visas for China although that had been given press accreditation for the games. Chinese embassies refused to issue visas to six members of Reporters Without Borders. During the news conferences that the Beijing Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (BOCOG) held for the international media, its representatives, above all BOCOG vice-president Wang Wei, refused to comment on the various incidents involving freedom of expression. With the IOC's agreement, BOCOG even cancelled some of the news conference after English-language journalists were too insistent with their questions. The authorities promised that the more relaxed rules for the foreign media adopted in January 2007 would be maintained after the Olympic Games but no directive has so far been issued putting this into effect. If no such directive is issued, the foreign media's freedom of movement and freedom to interview will end in October, after the Paralympic Games. Reporters Without Borders accuses the government of blackmail, of conditioning the maintenance of the more favourable rules on the foreign media's good behaviour. Right to demonstrate The organisers designated places in Beijing for demonstrators but permission was not given for any demonstration, although 77 applications were filed with the Beijing Public Security Bureau. More seriously, at least 15 Chinese were arrested for requesting permission, including two women in the late 70s. Sentences of reeducation through work were imposed on some of the applicants. The Chinese authorities accused the would-be demonstrators of intending to commit an offence, and punished them for this. The IOC has accused the Chinese government of breaking its promises in this respect. In view of the impossibility of demonstrating freely in Beijing, several international organisations staged unauthorised street protests or gave news conferences in hotel rooms. Reporters Without Borders clandestinely broadcast FM radio programmes in Chinese and English on 8 August in Beijing, above all as a protest against the state's monopoly of broadcast news and information and its jamming of international radio stations that broadcast in the Chinese, Tibetan and Uyghur languages. This censorship did not stop during the games. Dissidents in danger "I hope that the 2008 games will be over as quickly as possible as this event has brought us too much suffering," the wife of one of the "Olympic prisoners" told Reporters Without Borders. Around 10 human rights activists including cyber-dissident Hu Jia were arrested before the games and most of them were given prison sentences for criticising the Olympics. These "Olympic prisoners" were treated very harshly. One of them, Yang Chunlin, who got a five-year sentence, was brought into court in chains. Leading figures such as Ding Zilin of the Mothers of Tiananmen and Wan Yanhai, who heads an NGO that cares for AIDS victims, were forced to leave the capital during the games for fear of reprisals. There has been no news of Zeng Jinyan, the well-known blogger and wife of Hu Jia, or their eight-month-old daughter since the start of the games. Many human rights activists and Xinjiang inhabitants fear a crackdown after the games to punish those who spoiled the authorities. One of the police directives whose existence was revealed by Reporters Without Borders on 20 August says Chinese who criticise the government in interviews for the foreign news media must be properly investigated. It also tells policemen to follow the foreign journalists who carry out this kind of interview. Reporters Without Borders fears that once the thousands of foreign journalists have left Beijing, the political police will step up its control of human rights activists and the population in Xinjiang and Tibet. Internet censorship Reporters Without Borders has confirmed that access to around 30 human rights websites and Chinese-language news websites is still blocked in China, including in the foreign press centres. The latest website to be censored is iTunes. A pro-Tibetan NGO said this was because the iTunes site enabled athletes in Beijing to listen to pro-Tibetan songs. The Chinese authorities discriminated against Tibetan Internet users as many websites that were unblocked for the games, such as those of Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International, continued to be blocked in Tibet. The government departments in charge of online censorship stepped up monitoring and controls during the games. Chinese Human Rights Defenders released a memo from ISP Xinwang Hulian to website editors saying: "To ensure the safety of information on the Internet during the Beijing Olympics and in accordance with requests from higher authorities, Xinwang Hulian will conduct a safety inspection of its sites." Discussion forums took measures against their most outspoken participants, denying them access during the games. Hacker attacks on human rights websites increased during the games. This was the case both for sites in China, such as the online publication Yizhou Xiwen, and those outside the country, such as Propaganda and revelations in the Chinese press The more independent-minded Chinese newspapers ran some stories that were embarrassing for the government. The business magazine Caijing, for example, did not hesitate to report a senior official's suicide during the games. The daily Xinjingbao (Beijing News) was censored for inadvertently publishing a photo of a victim of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Copies of the newspaper were withdrawn from sale and the website was censored. The Propaganda Department remained vigilant, issuing frequent instructions to the media restricting coverage of certain Olympic-related news such as the faking that took place during the opening ceremony. Other newspapers, such as Global Times, distinguished themselves by their hostility towards the foreign media. And the state media kept pumping out reports that reflected well on the organisers of the games. Footage of anti-Olympic protests in China and abroad were never broadcast. International Olympic Committee's responsibility When the IOC voted to award these games to China in 2001, it knew that the issue of human rights would be at the heart of the event. But, throughout the seven long years from the vote until the start of the games, the IOC and its president, Jacques Rogge, proved incapable of getting the Chinese authorities to make lasting improvements in respect for freedom of expression. The IOC had an obligation to ensure respect for the Olympic Charter, which says sport must serve "the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity." It is guilty of a serious dereliction of duty. Instead of ensuring respect for the dignity of Chinese human rights activists, Rogge preferred to censor athletes who wanted to wear a badge saying "For a better world" and to expel a Senegalese coach who called for "Friendship first, then competition." Reporters Without Borders urges those at the head of the Olympic movement to ask themselves what the criteria for awarding future games should be. The current criteria are not only technical and material, but also environmental. Why not add respect for free expression in the would-be host city's country to the criteria used? The IOC could, for example, take account of the existence (or not) of independent media, the degree of censorship and the freedom of national and foreign journalist to move about the country.