Though the Chinese have made efforts to increase press freedoms
for foreign journalists covering the 2008 Summer Olympic Games
in Beijing, reporters are still expecting to encounter some challenges
based on long-standing restrictions and mentalities.
accommodate the more than 20,000 journalists expected to arrive
in Beijing for the Olympic Games in August, the Chinese have increased
access to government sources, locations and the Internet.
Director of Media Operations for the Beijing Organizing Committee
of the Olympic Games Sun Weijia said in an official statement
that treating the members of the press coming to Beijing "kindly"
"Olympic media operations are expected to have a deep impact
on China's future media services as it is a brand new subject
matter in the country's higher-learning and academic institutions,"
he said in the statement.
Some journalism advocates are hoping the Olympics will provide
an opportunity to help push China toward liberalizing its approach
toward press freedoms in general.
"We also want to make better known (the) media conditions
in China, which are quite complex and are not just cut and dry
authoritarian censorship," said Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator
for the Committee to Protect Journalists. "It's a really
dynamic situation. And we've been trying to capture that in the
writing and reporting we've been doing."
According to Dietz, foreign journalists are treated differently
than Chinese journalists -- reforms enacted in January 2007 allow
foreign reporters to go anywhere and talk to any source they want.
Chinese journalists, however, work under the confines of an elaborate,
but not airtight, system of government censors, and can face jail
time for violations, Dietz said.
The reforms themselves are temporary -- they expire in October
2008 after the Paralympic Games. And though they are aimed at
increasing access, they are not always adhered to, he explained.
Dietz said local officials around the vast country -- who are
accustomed to having some autonomy -- do not always abide by mandates
to expand access to sources and locations. Since the reforms were
enacted, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, an association
of Beijing-based professional journalists, has reported 230 instances
of foreign journalists saying they were harassed by local officials,
The Chinese have set up a government hotline for foreign correspondents
to report such cases.
When violence broke out in Tibet leading up to the Games, the
issue of press access was put to the test. Tibet is a semi-autonomous
region under Chinese control since the 1950s, which has been trying
to assert its independence ever since.
After riots in March, when anti-Chinese protesters clashed with
police and burned vehicles and shops, the Chinese government barred
foreign journalists from entering the area.
When China sentenced 30 people to prison for participating in
the riots, foreign journalists could not cover the trial in Tibet's
capital Lhasa, according to the Washington Post.
In a broader sense, foreign journalists in China often have trouble
finding people willing to be interviewed for fear of government
retaliation if they speak to the press.
Jocelyn Ford, a freelance journalist based in Beijing and a chairwoman
of the media freedoms committee for the Foreign Correspondents
Club of China, said she has been followed by Chinese authorities
and had to abandon reporting trips and continue them later in
order to get her story.
"You have to realize that China is coming out of a soft
authoritarian type of state where the government doesn't think
the public is necessarily entitled to information, so you're working
in that environment. They're used to not having to tell people
[the information] they want," she said.
When Ford worked for an English-language program on China Radio
International, her Chinese coworkers referred to the state media
as the "mouthpiece of the government," says Ford.
But now, the government is trying to transition out of that mindset,
focusing more on public relations than on absolute control of
information, and that transition has been rocky, she said.
Chinese media are caught between competing market and political
forces as China has gone through significant reform in the past
several decades, according to Peter H. Gries, a professor and
the director of the Institute for U.S.-China Issues at the University
"More and more media outlets sink or swim based on circulation
numbers and advertising revenues, which creates incentives to
publish politically sensitive stories that will sell. But this
can put the media's two 'bosses' at odds. One Chinese Communist
Party response to competition from the 'market' boss has indeed
been not just to censor the press, but to seek to guide and influence
its direction," Gries explained.
He added that China seeks to promote its international image
in order to increase nationalism among its citizens through the
press so when Western journalists report negative news, a backlash
"There is also a tendency in China to 'blame the messenger,'"
Gries said. "So it will be the Western press reporting on
negative aspects of China's rise, rather than the domestic sources
of those problems, that are likely to become the target of Chinese
While the Chinese government spends considerable effort and expense
to monitor and control what its citizens look at on the Internet,
foreign journalists will largely enjoy unfettered access during
China and Iran have highly extensive Internet filtering systems,
said Stephanie Wang, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet
and Society at Harvard University, who works on the center's Open
Net initiative, a global study on Internet censorship. The Chinese
government can block access to certain Web sites, such as the
YouTube video-viewing site, or cut off access to the Internet
altogether, she said.
The International Olympic Committee in early April called on
China to allow unfettered Internet access to the press after complaints
that the Chinese had stepped up its interference after the Tibet
protests, the Associated Press reported.
Wang said the question is what the Chinese government will do
if a major event happens during the Games.
"There won't be a big problem accessing information [for
foreign journalists], but I think if something unexpected happened
and they went to report on it, it could get interesting,"