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In Beijing, Reporters Encounter Internet Curbs as Olympics Near

July 31, 2008 at 6:40 PM EST
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Beijing is putting the final touches on preparations for the start of the Olympic Games on Aug. 8 -- but reporters are encountering Internet curbs despite expectations of open Web access for foreign journalists. A reporter and media expert weigh the issue.
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, China censors the World Wide Web for international journalists. Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: Beijing is putting its final touches on the summer Games before they open next week. But the Chinese government seems to be sprinting away from one opening they had promised: the ability of journalists to, quote, “report freely.”

In the last few days, Chinese authorities have blocked Internet access for foreign journalists to some politically sensitive Web sites. Fabian Tetelboim is an Argentine reporter in Beijing for the games.

FABIAN TETELBOIM, Argentine Reporter: I saw some Web pages that are blocked, International Amnesty. On Wikipedia, I tried to find out something about Tibet, and it was impossible.

RAY SUAREZ: The government has long kept Chinese citizens and visitors from Web sites it deems unacceptable using its so-called “Great Firewall.” Again this week, a spokesman for the Beijing Olympic Committee said it would allow journalists open access to the Web.

SUN WEIDE, Spokesperson, Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee (through translator): We will be providing full access to the Internet to facilitate your reporting during the Olympic Games.

RAY SUAREZ: But an International Olympic Committee spokesman confirmed the government had blocked some Web sites.

KEVIN GOSPER, Chairman, IOC Media Commission: There are certain sites that they are blocking which are non-related to the Olympic Games. Our preoccupation is to ensure that the international media can report on the Olympic Games. And anything beyond that is a matter for the Chinese authorities.

RAY SUAREZ: The Chinese measures appear to break a promise the Beijing organizers made when the city was awarded the games in 2001.

As part of their bid, China pledged journalists would have complete freedom to report.

Late today, the International Olympic Committee said it met with organizers to discuss the restrictions. The IOC stressed that it had not previously cut a deal with the Chinese permitting any media censorship.

GISELLE DAVIES, Spokesperson, IOC: Having understood yesterday that there were difficulties with access to some sites, which obviously goes against our desire to always have had media having access they need, we understand that the organizers tomorrow will confirm how they’ve remedied the situation. And we’re encouraged by some early signs.

RAY SUAREZ: Media restrictions are a widely acknowledged price of doing business in China, as the NewsHour’s Margaret Warner found in May. The head of Google’s China operation told her the company censors itself in China.

KAI-FU LEE, President, Google China: Our choices are, A, we filter, comply by the law, and have a legal presence in China or, B, we don’t enter China. There are certain content that are known to us to be not acceptable, and we would delete them from being shown — from showing up in search results.

MARGARET WARNER: So Tiananmen Square or Tibet, for example, or Falun Gong, you all take care of just blocking that?

KAI-FU LEE: Those are the — some of the examples, yes.

RAY SUAREZ: With the Olympics a week away, whether the press can cover events outside the games remains an open question.

For more on all this, we get two views. Andrew Nathan is professor of political science at Columbia University. He’s written extensively about China and is co-chair of Human Rights in China, an advocacy organization.

And Bobby Ghosh is world editor for Time magazine. He was based in Hong Kong for several years in the 1990s.

We invited representatives from the Chinese embassy to participate, but they declined.

Breach of a promise?

Andrew Nathan
Columbia University
The mounting of the Olympics has been a lot tougher for the Chinese government than they probably anticipated. And the most important thing for them is not to have any challenge to stability, not to be seen by their own people to be caught unaware.

RAY SUAREZ: Bobby Ghosh, earlier this decade, in response to press inquiries, Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, told reporters for the first time foreign media will be able to report freely and publish their work freely in China. There will be no censorship.

Do you consider China now in breach of a promise to the IOC?

BOBBY GHOSH, World Editor, Time Magazine: Well, that seems to have been a matter of some contention between the IOC and the Chinese. The Chinese are now suggesting that the IOC took it upon itself to make promises that they had not made.

In fact, Jacques Rogge repeated that promise only two weeks ago in some interviews. The Chinese are now saying that they promise to allow journalists to have access to sites that they, the Chinese, believe pertain to the Olympic Games. They claim now that they never said they would be completely free and unfettered access.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Nathan, do you think the Chinese promised more than they ever intended to do? Or was it more recent events, like the protests around the torch relay, the crackdown in Tibet, the aftermath of the earthquake, that now had them a little more worried about international scrutiny?

ANDREW NATHAN, Columbia University: Well, we actually don't know what they promised because their promises have never been published. But it seems as if, whatever they promised, they had their fingers crossed. They had their own interpretation of what it meant.

But I think you're right to say that the mounting of the Olympics has been a lot tougher for the Chinese government than they probably anticipated. And the most important thing for them is not to have any challenge to stability, not to be seen by their own people to be caught unaware.

So they're incredibly risk-averse to anything that might lead to a challenge to them as a regime.

RAY SUAREZ: Bobby Ghosh, what forms have those risk-aversions taken? Have the Chinese been on the defensive in recent weeks and months?

BOBBY GHOSH: Well, it has waxed and waned a bit. After the earthquake in Sichuan province a few months ago, there was a sudden opening, and the journalists, Western as well as local, were allowed unprecedented access to the disaster zone.

But then, once local Chinese people began to protest against government corruption that led to some of the collapsed school structures, for example, they clamped down again and restrictions were placed on journalists.

Freedoms of foreign journalists

Bobby Ghosh
Time Magazine
A lot of Chinese people on the Web have learned how to circumvent. They've learned how to tunnel under the Great Firewall.

BOBBY GHOSH: If you take a 20-year view of China, journalists today, especially foreign journalists, have more freedom than they did 20 years ago. But if you look more recently, it has gone up and down several times in the last few months.

And right now, in the lead-up to the games, I think the Chinese are being extra cautious and are trying to control the image that they can project to the world, to the extent that they can do so.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, do you think Chinese will be able to read the work that your Time reporters do on things other than the actual athletic contests in China?

BOBBY GHOSH: Well, a lot of Chinese people on the Web have learned how to circumvent. They've learned how to tunnel under the Great Firewall.

And we get responses. We have a China blog on Time.com, and we get responses from Chinese leaders. It's clear that people in the country are reading it and are responding to it.

But the lay reader, the lay Internet user who doesn't have the sophisticated understanding of how to get past some of these barriers will not be able to see a lot of the stories that are being produced by these journalists who have arrived in Beijing now.

RAY SUAREZ: What about doing your work? Will it be harder to be a journalist under these rules?

BOBBY GHOSH: Well, keep in mind that, for correspondents who have been in Beijing for years now, these restrictions are not new. These restriction apply to all Chinese.

The promise or the implied promise was only made for the duration of the games. So for journalists who are based in Beijing, like our bureau chief, Simon Elegant, this is just business as usual. These are the hurdles to journalism that they're used to dealing with every day.

China's reasons

Andrew Nathan
Columbia University
They feel, in fact, that it's inappropriate, that people shouldn't be reporting those stories, that people should -- you know, reporters should report simply on the athletics that are going on.

BOBBY GHOSH: And just as the smarter Chinese Internet users, journalists learn to find a way to push the envelope whenever they can. They find a way to get the information out.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Nathan, do you think measures like these are evidence of a Chinese desire to dissuade reporters from pursuing stories on Tibet, on human rights, on remaking the face of Beijing for the games?

ANDREW NATHAN: Yes, absolutely. They would like those stories not to be written. And I think they feel, in fact, that it's inappropriate, that people shouldn't be reporting those stories, that people should -- you know, reporters should report simply on the athletics that are going on.

The Chinese have a large and almost invisible thing called the Central Propaganda Department inside the Communist Party apparatus that controls most of the Chinese media. That's what they're used to. And it does so very effectively, even though there's a lot of diversity in the Chinese media.

It cleverly comes together around themes that they want to promote. And they're really unused to reporters who are probing everywhere and consider those people to have some hostile intent.

China stands its ground

Bobby Ghosh
Time Magazine
I think the Olympic movement overreached itself when it claimed that the games were somehow going to profoundly change China. ... China is changing all the time. There are many forces at work in that country, political, social, economic.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, in other parts of China's relations with the rest of the world, they say they just have a different view of all of this from the Western view. Might they make that argument in this case, that there is a different Chinese idea about what press freedom is, what social harmony is?

ANDREW NATHAN: Yes, I think that's exactly what we see. They have a different idea of it. And when they made promises about press freedom, they really meant their kind of press freedom, which is not the same kind that we expected. You could say it's a big misunderstanding.

RAY SUAREZ: Bobby Ghosh, does China care what the outside world thinks of it or what the Western press thinks of it, at a time when reporters are pouring into Beijing?

BOBBY GHOSH: Well, there are two parts to that question. The Chinese admit the rulers of China do care, but they're quite used to criticism. As far as ordinary Chinese are concerned, I think for them this is a storm over a teacup.

The restrictions that are being applied to these Western journalists are the restrictions they live with every day. So I don't think they will have a lot of sympathy for a few Western journalists who are complaining about lack of Internet access.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, when it's all said and done, now that the IOC has sort of conceded to China's point of view, will the Olympic movement's attempts to open up China to information in the end have made any difference at all?

BOBBY GHOSH: Not a significant difference. I think the Olympic movement overreached itself when it claimed that the games were somehow going to profoundly change China. I think that was a piece of hubris on the part of Jacques Rogge of the IOC.

China is changing all the time. There are many forces at work in that country, political, social, economic.

The Olympic Games will come and go. It will be a terrific show. And some weeks from now, those same international journalists will be writing stories saying how well the whole thing was organized.

And I think this flap over Internet censorship will only be -- and the Chinese are counting on this -- will only be a very small part of that story.

RAY SUAREZ: Bobby Ghosh from Time, Professor Nathan from Columbia, gentlemen, thank you both.