BEIJING — Journalists scrambling to make Games-time deadlines might not make it to Badaling or Juyongguan during their trip overseas, but they’re sure to become familiar with China’s other Great Wall: the Great Firewall, that is. On July 31, Olympic officials admitted the International Olympic Committee had not yet secured unfettered Internet access to foreign journalists, leaving everyone to wonder, yet again, what exactly China meant when it accepted the 2008 Olympic Bid with the promise to allow the press to report freely.
Chinese officials maintained that access for foreign journalists was sufficient because information on sports and athletics remain readily available. Just the sensitive material (read: interesting and newsworthy) was off limits. However, after howls of protest from many in the media, the censored web was loosened a bit on August 2. No public announcement, no explanation, just a few more sites stripped from the forbidden list. Still, crisis averted — or was it? Even after the news slowly spread, foreign journalists remained incensed about the lack of action prior to August 2.
When the news of the censored Net access for journalists broke, one of my friends posed a question: were journalists who accepted these restrictions for the opportunity to report on the Games sacrificing their credibility? It’s an interesting question. As late as mid-July, IOC president Jacques Rogge continued to promise Internet access without censorship to journalists planning to report in Beijing. Eleventh hour announcements make impassioned protest difficult with visas long since secured and plane tickets already bought.
Of course, ordinary Chinese citizens — and China boasts more netizens than any other country in the world — are subject to an even stricter censorship regime, with sites such as Wikipedia and YouTube being variously blocked and unblocked over the past few years.
The High Cost of Connecting
But forget access to information on Tibet for just a second — let’s just examine access to the Internet in general for foreign media. Beijing has promised state-of-the-art media facilities to visiting journalists, but the ability to log onto the web will set reporters back approximately $500 and up. A fixed IP and access to the Games-time information system will add even more to the cost.
It’s hardly a problem for large papers able to foot the bill for their team of reporters. But what about everyone else? Twenty-four computers offer free Internet access from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. each day. The newly constructed media village will house about 7,000 journalists and media support staff. This scenario conjures up images reminiscent of last week’s queues for the remaining Olympic tickets. Asking journalists to pay for their own usage isn’t unreasonable, but demanding $500 for a service that costs the average Chinese family about $20 for the same length of time is.
Many enterprising journalists have taken matters into their own hands, turning the Papa John’s with free Wi-Fi across the street into their unofficial center of operations. Other early hold-outs to the overpriced Internet are accepting their fate and coughing up the big bucks for reliable service.
How important is the Internet to today’s journalist? I can tell you I have six browser windows and over 20 tabs open right now in Safari to help me research and collect my thoughts, but no one needs me to do the math for them. The occasional network crash forces me to fly solo from time to time, but it leaves Word documents hideously flagged with things to Google once everything’s back online.
Fortunately, my accommodations include free Internet access. Of course, it’s only been in the last week that Blogger and WordPress have run with much reliability. When I arrived in early July, I needed a VPN client to connect to the blog I was writing for my parents back home. Sometimes I could connect; other times, I couldn’t.
What Did Journalists Expect?
That’s the thing about the Great Firewall — there’s no master list or helpful placeholder page to tell you what’s restricted. There’s just the maddening sensation of waiting forever for a “server is not responding” error message. As for Amnesty International:“http:www.amnesty.org” (and other recently unblocked sites), I can now access them from my non-Media Village connection, too. However, a search for “Falun Gong,” China’s banned spiritual movement, kicked me offline the other night and forced me to restart my computer. Even more maddening is the number of sites you wouldn’t expect to be blocked — for instance, access to my online banking account.
With the situation smooted over somewhat, and most foreign journalists already in Beijing, it’s too late to hand in press accreditation to protest Net censorship. Perhaps, more importantly, journalists should be asking themselves why they expected anything different. After all, the 2001 announcement of the successful Beijing bid — and successive promise of press freedom — came on the same day CBS reported suppression of footage on a banned Chinese religious movement.
In the months leading up to the Games, numerous organizations attempted to brief journalists on the realities of reporting in China, but few seemed to head the warning. Journalists who today want to call China’s successful bid and resultant promises a farce might be correct, but they fail to see the bigger picture.
If the world were watching Paris or Toronto gear up for the Games, they would not be asking China about Internet censorship, let alone human rights. A modern China? Indeed, and all the scrutiny that comes with it. Outcry over Internet censorship yielded real results. With more tools for a free press than they had even a week ago, the pens (and keyboards) of foreign journalists are likely to produce others.
Elle Moxley is a student at the University of Missouri pursuing dual degrees in journalism and sociology. Currently, she is living in Beijing, China, spending two months working for the Olympic News Service at the XXIX Olympic Games.
China Eases Internet Restrictions for Journalists in the New York Times
China Will Lose the Censorship Game at PC Magazine
High-jumping China’s firewall at Asia Times
How to Read the Great Olympics Internet Censorship Drama at Huffington Post
Reporters without borders make pirate broadcast in Beijing at Times of London