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How to Read the Great Olympics Internet Censorship Drama

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The Knights of the IOC Negotiate with the BOCOG Dragon and the Website Skies Turn Mostly Blue

How should we read the Great Olympics Internet Website Censorship drama that has unfurled during the last days before the Opening Ceremony?

As foreign journalists came to Beijing, the first thing they did, not surprisingly, was hook up to the information cupboard and test how open access to the Internet would be. The test was simple and predictable: look for critical NGOs (Amnesty International), international news sources (BBC) and hot subjects like Tibet. It was like checking oil, water, and battery on a car.

The result: doubts, recriminations, candor, finger-pointing and disputes about history, language and standards.

Then, on Saturday, August 2, as Beijing's smoggy skies cleared (with experts heralding the success of anti-pollution efforts), the IOC announced in a press conference that discussions with BOCOG had led to broader access to controversial websites.

What happened, was it enough, how did it happen and what should we make of it? Here are some notes -- notes that certainly don't resolve whether the end result is sufficient or clarify actually what happened -- but it's all a work in progress.

Figuring out the "facts" requires understanding a) what BOCOG promised; b) what the IOC understood; c) whether there a "deal" between the IOC and BOCOG; d) whether there a deal between individual IOC Board members in cowboy-discussions with the IOC; and d) whether "all's well that ends well" and if so did all end well?

As to what BOCOG promised and what the IOC understood, some of the story can be told through the tale of Kevan Gosper, head of the IOC Press Commission and vice chairman of the IOC Coordination Commission for the 2008 Games. It was Gosper who was gobsmacked -- this is the word I would use -- when told about access denied to the foreign press in Beijing as the journalists assembled in July. (Michael Quinion says gobsmacked means being "'utterly astonished, astounded.' It's much stronger than just being surprised; it's used for something that leaves you speechless, or otherwise stops you dead in your tracks. It suggests that something is as surprising as being suddenly hit in the face." )

On July 31, Agence France-Press ("IOC Knew About Content Restrictions") reported that:

Australia's Kevan Gosper, the head of the IOC's press commission, told the South China Morning Post that the IOC knew some sites would be blocked, and apologised that the foreign press had been misled.

"(Recently) I have also been advised that some of the IOC officials had negotiated with the Chinese that some sensitive sites would be blocked," the Hong Kong-based newspaper quoted Mr Gosper as saying in an exclusive interview.

"If you have been misled by what I have told you about there being free Internet access during the Games, then I apologise."

Gosper -- in Australian fashion -- committed the Australian sin of ultimate candor last week when he discussed the situation:

I've made it quite plain that I've not conveyed full information to the media, for which I apologise. I am concerned that I was put into that position, but I really am not concerned about myself. I'm concerned that the international media, whom we rely on for reporting the Games, has been caught by surprise. That for me is unacceptable.

My favorite background analysis is an article by Glenda Korporaal in the Australian:

Kevan Gosper and the IOC didn't realise that 'yes' doesn't always mean 'yes'

As former Shell Australia chief executive Kevan Gosper, who has been going to China on business for more than 30 years, found out the hard way, there are traps for those keen to earn the gold that can come from doing business with the Middle Kingdom -- even for those with years of experience.

The first lesson is that for the sake of face, as book after book on doing business with China warns, your Chinese business partners will most likely tell you exactly what you want to hear, time and time again.

It's the old problem of trying to work out when "yes"' means "yes" in this country and when "yes"' just means "I hear you, we are both friends and whatever assurances you need to keep you happy we will gladly give". Everybody is happy until the time comes when those promises and assurances are put to the test.

In Gosper's case he has for years, as head of the IOC Press Commission and vice chairman of the IOC Co-ordination Commission for the 2008 Games, been telling the world's media that the internet would be free and uncensored when they arrived in Beijing to cover the event.

He was not alone. The assurances were given to other members of the IOC Press Commission (which covers the written press) and the world's official Olympic broadcasters, who have also had regular meetings in China in the years leading up to the Games.

Public assurances on a free internet were also given by IOC president Jacques Rogge, a Belgian, and Hein Verbruggen, the Dutchman who heads the Co-ordination Commission for the 2008 Games, following assurances to them by officials from officials of the Beijing Olympic organising committee, BOCOG.

These cheerful assurances on both the Chinese and the IOC side did wonders in heading off years of potential controversy in the foreign press about working conditions when they arrived to cover the Games.

Gosper's gobsmacking occurred midweek. By Saturday, August 2, when the IOC held its press conference, Jacques Rogge sought to keep the IOC's skirts clean -- distinguishing himself and the IOC from China and BOCOG.

Here's what he said on Saturday (as reported by Stephen Wade for the Associated Press):

"Let me be very clear on this. We require that different media have the fullest access possible to report on the Olympic Games. And I'm adamant in saying there has been no deal whatsoever to accept restrictions. Our requirements are the same from host city to host city and remain unchanged since the IOC entered into a host city contract with Beijing in 2001."

"I'm not going to make an apology for something that the IOC is not responsible for," Rogge said. "We are not running the Internet in China. The Chinese authorities are running the Internet."

Wade has been excellent at following up on IOC statements. For example, here's a downright hermeneutic probing of the meaning of censorship in an article by Wade, "IOC Chief Grilled on Internet Censorship," quoting an IOC spokesperson on the linguistic travails of a Belgian:

During an IOC news conference earlier Saturday, Rogge was quoted as saying "foreign media will be able to report freely and publish their work freely in China. There will be no censorship on the Internet."

IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies suggested that Rogge, who is Belgian, may not have been precise when he spoke of "no censorship" because he was speaking in English, not his native tongue.

"There's been no change in the IOC's position," she said. "Again, I think we are trying to hang on every single word often spoken by people whose mother tongue isn't English. Let me be clear again: The IOC would like to see open access for the media to be able to do their job."

In 2001, when China won the right to host the games, Wang Wei, the organizing committee's executive vice president, was widely quoted as saying, "We will give the media complete freedom to report when they come to China."

Jacquelin Magnay, in Melbourne's The Age, asked in "Tanks for the memory of Tiananmen 1989," "So was the IOC naive?"

She quoted Rogge as saying: "We are idealists and idealism is something that is linked with naivety, but we fight for causes that we think are important and we want the media to work in the best possible way."

I might add that Australia has been an excellent source of journalism about this question (partly because Gosper, a key figure, is an Australian). For example, see the Australian Broadcasting Corporation transcript from July 31 of a program called "Fury over lack of Internet Access at the Beijing Games":

ELEANOR HALL: Let's go now to Beijing where a furious media pack has been questioning Olympic officials about their knowledge of restrictions on media access to the Internet during the games.

When China won the Olympic Games, the IOC promised that reporters would have unfettered access to the Internet. That promise was restated by IOC president Jacques Rogge only two weeks ago. He said, "There will be no censorship on the Internet".

But now IOC officials say they always knew that China would block international journalists covering the Games.

This morning, IOC press commission head Kevan Gosper was apologising, saying he knew nothing about the restrictions.

So was the International Olympic Committee duped by the Chinese or did some officials do a deal and keep Jacques Rogge and Kevan Gosper in the dark?

The president of the Australian Olympic Committee, John Coates, has just held a press conference in Beijing and our Olympics reporter Karen Barlow joins me from there now.

So Karen, what did AOC officials have to say today about the restrictions?

KAREN BARLOW: Eleanor, John Coates is known as a champion of free speech so he has found this a great pity, in his words. He doesn't fully understand who was involved in the deal but it must have been, he says, people on the senior executive of the IOC board.

It's not something that the individual, national boards of, you know, the national Olympic committees would have known about. So a short time ago John Coates had this reaction to the deal:

JOHN COATES: It would appear that this is something that's been done by, at a coordination commission level and that sort of detail doesn't come through to the membership. We meet once a year. If we're on particular commissions we might be privy to information like that. I certainly wasn't, and I think you'll find that Kevan said he wasn't and he's apologised if he's misled anyone. He wasn't aware of that.

I have no involvement in any of that. There's nothing I can do about it and it's in the hands of others. As I say, my responsibility here is with the Australian team.

ELEANOR HALL: That's John Coates the president of the Australian Olympic Committee. Karen, what exactly was the agreement between the IOC and China when the IOC awarded the Games to China?

KAREN BARLOW: Well media freedom is a central plank of getting the Games. And we do know that China is a known censor, but the Internet is a relatively new media form and there have been great pledges, promises that the media would be free to the media. This is something that is unknown at previous Olympics even though the Internet is a fresh form of media.

ELEANOR HALL: And did Olympic officials say whether they would now be reconsidering awarding the Games to countries with the sorts of human rights problems China has?

KAREN BARLOW: Well I did ask John Coates during the press conference whether this now put into question the fact that China is the host, and this is what he had to say:

JOHN COATES: Not so far as I'm concerned. Insofar as I was concerned they always deserved it as the most populous nation and a leading nation in sport. So what they're providing for us on the sporting field justifies that decision.

What about the resolution? Here, too, it is like the weather. Though there have been elements of blue sky, there is recognition that internet access -- like the pollution threatening to interfere with athletes' performance, which reappeared this week -- will likely remain a problem.

After senior IOC officials met with their Chinese counterparts on July 31, Reuters reported that.

Olympic organizers unblocked some Internet sites at the main press center and media venues Friday while others remained off limits for journalists covering the Beijing games.

The move falls short of the "free and unfettered access" the organizers and Chinese officials had promised for months. However, it was an improvement from earlier in the week when sites for the likes of Amnesty International or Tiananmen Square could not be opened.

Senior International Olympic Committee officials met late into the night Thursday with their Chinese counterparts and said they reached an agreement to unblock sites, although the IOC statement said the details were still being formulated.

"We trust them to keep their promise," the International Olympic Committee said.

Kevan Gosper, the press commission head of the IOC, said the IOC and Chinese officials were working toward "unblocking sites that we believe were unreasonably blocked."

Gosper acknowledged full Web access was not possible due to China's authoritarian government and the tight social controls exerted by the Communist Party.

"We have always had an understanding, and we haven't necessarily talked about it, that any sovereign government will block pornographic sites and what they might consider subversive, or sites which are contrary to the national interest," Gosper said.

"I would suggest also that we are not working in a democratic society, we're working in a communist society. This is China, and they are proud to be a communist society. So it will be different.

"In terms of all other matters," Gosper said journalists and broadcasters would have the same access as during previous Olympics.

"I believe we are now on the way to getting there."

Amnesty International's site was open on Friday, but links to the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong remained closed. Some Web sites dealing with Tibet were open, but others tied to the restive region in the west of China were blocked. The BBC's Chinese-language site was open at times, but frequently unavailable.

Searches for Falun Gong turned up only blank Web pages, and searching for sensitive phrases like "Tiananmen Square" turned up sites that could not be accessed.

Gosper, the Australia IOC member, was caught up in the controversy.

On Thursday, he said he felt like the "fall guy" after promising reporters at the games they would have uncensored Internet access, only to find certain Web sites blocked. He went further by saying he suspected the IOC's senior leadership -- including president Jacques Rogge -- probably knew about the change and had worked with the Chinese to engineer it.

He backed off from that suggestion Friday after talking with Rogge and Hein Verbruggen, who heads an IOC committee that helped organize the Beijing games.

"I have absolute assurance from the president of the IOC that no new arrangements have been entered into with (the local organizing committee) BOCOG or the Chinese authorities in respect to censorship for the international press to report on the games," Gosper said. "I now am absolutely satisfied there hasn't been."

At the Saturday press conference, Gosper said that a team will ensure websites are uncensored, at least within the bounds set by BOCOG and China.

So the matter rests as the Opening Ceremony approaches. There's a difference between full and open access and "sufficient" access. There are sites that present national security issues, according to China, and sites that are not worth blocking. There are questions which sites will be opened fully, and which sites made available only in Olympic sites or to journalists, where that is possible. There are definitely questions whether access is open, but journalists are monitored.

China and BOCOG overreached in what websites they blocked. It's ok if they control the weather to make haze disappear, but controlling websites is another thing. By restraining too much, they momentarily lost their desired message. At the same time, the IOC has known that China's website policies would be a problem all along and informally sought to manage change. While both BOCOG and the IOC urged more openness, both recognized the limit of their power. Ultimately, at the last moment, public attention plus directed activity led to more opening -- though how much remains to be seen. Kevan Gosper probably will keep his job as will Jacques Rogge. The Olympics will go on and sports will take over. But the nature of the weather and the extent of Internet openness will continue to be subjects of discussion in the days ahead.