Olympic Broadcasters Still At Odds With Chinese Government

07/31/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

BEIJING — The Beijing Olympics may not look much different from previous games on TV.

Behind the studio sets, however, world broadcasters have been squaring off for months with Chinese officials over censorship. Among the issues: what they'll be allowed to get on video, where they can work and whether they can broadcast live. They've faced red tape, intimidation and restrictions on coverage, which might make it difficult to cover unexpected events away from the venues.

Broadcast officials recount months of delays applying for permits amid changing rules. They've been questioned about coverage plans by everyone from policemen to local bureaucrats. Several broadcasters spoke of ordeals just to rent office space, and one said a Chinese homeowner made an offer to locate a satellite dish on his property.

"We have no idea at the moment whether we will be able to operate freely and without severe restrictions," said John Barton, director of sport for the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, which represents broadcasters in 57 countries.

"We've been given the commitment we can, but it remains to be seen whether we'll be able to do that. Until it begins we will not know how the officials and police will react. It's a lottery."

There are two classes of broadcasters. Rights holders like NBC pay for coverage at the venues: NBC has paid about $900 million. Non-rights holders can't film the venues, but can cover athletes and stories away from the venues. Their ranks include Associated Press Television News.

Time is running out to get things settled, with the Aug. 8 opening ceremony barely two weeks away.

Countless hassles and restrictive rules are likely to dampen coverage away from the venues, particularly if protests break out. Several scenarios could worsen the situation: if athletes wear pro-Tibet T-shirts, if they speak out on China's policies in Darfur, or criticize treatment of the nation's Muslim minority.

"We already have to tell the Chinese everywhere we want to be in August, and what time," said one TV broadcaster, asking not to be identified for fear of having permits rescinded. "We have to provide a list of the guests who will be interviewed and the content of the interview.

"My office asked about reporting on the street, and I said: 'No way, no way, no way.' I've told my headquarters that is fantasy."

Chinese organizers list terrorist threats and necessary security measures as reasons for the delays and restrictions on broadcasters. But for broadcasters the strategy seems aimed at producing sanitized, positive images of the Beijing Olympics and China's rise as a 21st century economic and political power.

Time is on the side of the Chinese communist government. Networks like NBC _ which hopes to sell $1 billion worth of advertising time _ face pressure to generate coverage. NBC is promising to air 3,600 hours of coverage and its owner, General Electric, is one of 12 top-tier sponsors of the International Olympic Committee.

Tough visa restrictions and 100,000 police and commandos are in place to keep out foreign activists who might lead pro-Tibet protests or human-rights campaigns. Chinese dissidents with grievances have also been rounded up, or kept from entering Beijing by security-police cordons that ring the city.

On Wednesday, a security official announced that Beijing will set up specially designated zones for protesters during the games. It wasn't clear how easy it would be to access the zones.

"For some of the journalists who want to report about things other than sports, they won't be able to do a lot during their two- or three-week stay," said Li Datong, a well-known former editor at the China Youth Daily, the official paper of the Communist Youth League.

"They won't speak the language, and it's so hard to do journalism in China even for those who have lived here for a long time."

Right holders say they've made some progress since a heated meeting in late May, when broadcasters and the International Olympic Committee warned the Chinese about bureaucratic delays. Broadcasters accused Chinese officials of suffocating TV coverage under the guise of national security. Some even hinted they might seek money back from the IOC if services paid for are not delivered.

Since then, broadcasters have been promised six hours of live coverage daily from Tiananmen Square, though only "standup talent" is allowed there and interviews are banned. Meanwhile, equipment has been flowing in through customs, and Chinese organizers have promised free movement of satellite trucks around the city.

This week, however, Chinese officials reneged on a pledge to deliver a specific list of places in Beijing that are off limits to TV crews. They instead produced a vague letter saying certain high-security areas and other unspecified spots would be restricted.

"This document gives the police security officials the widest possible interpretation relating to the movement of vehicle, where they can park and how the operate," said Barton, the Asia broadcast official. "They will move us on at will."

Despite gleaming venues and 70,000 smiling volunteers, the image of Beijing Olympics may become that of police waving their hands in front of cameras, hoping to block photos. This happened several weeks ago when a reporter for German TV ZDF _ a rights holder _ had a live interview stopped on the Great Wall of China. Police walked in front of the camera and showed their open palms to the lens.

Correspondent Johannes Hano said he had the correct permits, and permission from countless authorities. He was told to stop his interview because the on-camera expert on the Great Wall was an American who was not licensed to speak about the iconic monument.

"They can always seem to find a reason," Hano said.

NBC has opted to focus much of its live coverage from the Olympic Green area, the location of the Bird's Nest National Stadium and the Water Cube, the venue for swimming.

Tiananmen isn't much of an option. Chinese security police have banned helicopters from flying over the landmark to capture the start of the marathon. They've also banned helicopters when the race returns to Tiananmen at the 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) mark.

Top NBC officials have turned down numerous requests by The Associated Press for interviews about the restrictions.

The IOC has been criticized for not pushing China harder to keep promises it made in 2001 when it won the bid, and bid leader Wang Wei said: "We will give the media complete freedom to report when they come to China."

China's government was praised after the May 12 Sichuan earthquake for allowing Chinese and foreign journalists to report freely. But coverage of a natural disaster may differ from the highly stage-managed Olympics, where the reputation of the Communist Party leadership is on the line.

Discussing the issue of access to the games, a Chinese journalism professor expressed confidence in the government.

"I believe in China, more and more people _ especially those in the leadership roles _ have realized that the right for people to know the facts in their environment is not only legitimate but also necessary," said Gao Gang, professor and executive dean of the School of Journalism and Communication at Renmin University of China.

Sandy MacIntyre, director of news for APTN, said "things have improved dramatically" in the last few weeks. But he said he recently received a notice from Chinese authorities saying the broadcaster would have to give 24- or 72-hour notice to move a satellite truck around Beijing.

"There shouldn't be any notice at all needed to go live," MacIntyre said. "All of these rules should never have come down to the wire like this."

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