As an estimated 30,000 foreign journalists descend on Beijing to cover the 2008 Olympic Games, the world's spotlight will shine not only on the Games themselves but on China's restrictive stance toward media access. The Chinese government, reverting to form after its clash with the media over the March uprisings in Tibet, continues to clamp down on foreign and Chinese journalists as the opening of the Games approaches.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has catalogued anecdotal reports by foreign reporters ranging from minor obstructions of freedom of the press to outright harassment of individual reporters to detainment of individual reporters. The Committee to Protect Journalists has heard about the crucial threshold issue of delays in even obtaining visas. HRW reports cases in which China's foreign affairs ministry threatened the visa status of foreign reporters whose stories it considered inappropriate.
USA Today sports and political reporter Janice Lloyd, a veteran of nine Olympics, recounted her own incident last April when covering the run-up to the Games. Hoping to write stories about China's new Olympic training center and the Chinese athletes, in order to "give the U.S. insights into their drive to succeed," Lloyd was thwarted at every turn. Multiple attempts to contact the head of Beijing's Olympic organizing committee and other Chinese Olympics officials went bluntly unanswered, and Lloyd, unable to write the stories she envisioned, instead covered the Olympic torch relay through Paris and London from her post in Beijing.
The irony of being in Beijing and not being able to report on Beijing was not lost on Lloyd. But, adding insult to irony, Lloyd found a woman rummaging through personal folders at her desk when she returned to her Beijing hotel. Lloyd asked the woman what she was doing. The woman said she was restocking the minibar, but there was no rolling cart in sight. Also, the woman was dressed in business attire. Lloyd held the door open, and the woman left. "I hope you're enjoying your stay here," she said to Lloyd, smiling smugly.
On returning to the States, Lloyd talked with an FBI agent who told her the "housekeeping" woman had probably been in Lloyd's room every day and that her movements were likely being watched. The surveillance goals were twofold: monitoring and intimidation. But things could have been worse. Lloyd's colleague, Calum MacLeod, one of the journalists allowed by the Chinese government into Tibet last spring, wrote a USA Today cover story about the uprisings. According to Lloyd, the backlash was immediate. MacLeod received 200 death threats on his cell phone.
As a fan of the Olympics who recalls such historic moments as Bruce Jenner winning the decathlon or Nadia Comeneci winning a perfect 10 in gymnastics, I believe the world should not settle for only half of the Olympic experience, for a stunted and sanitized event. Stories such as those Janice Lloyd hoped to write would have scored positive points for Chinese Olympic organizers. By obstructing and harassing reporters, China not only risks missing out on opportunities for compelling news footage, but it increases the likelihood of making censorship the hot story of the 2008 Olympics.
Instead of flexing its command and control muscles, China should honor temporary regulations issued in December 2006 that allow foreign journalists to interview anyone who consents to be interviewed. China arguably should make these regulations permanent, broaden them to include Chinese journalists and the assistants and fixers who will work with foreign journalists during the Games, and dismantle the elaborate government apparatus that keeps journalists from reporting freely.
Such an apparatus only obstructs China's hope of taking the world stage as an ascending and legitimate power. According to BBC correspondent Adam Brookes, who covered China for several years between 1995 and 2003, the Chinese government has customarily relied on media control as a "central lever." Hotels report foreign press visitors to local authorities to help track their movements. A repressive administrative penalties system keeps Chinese journalists fearful of the fateful "knock on the door in the middle of the night" that leads to solitary confinement or re-education labor camps. Speaking of the treatment of Chinese journalists, Brookes told me, "We're not just talking media censorship, but, on occasion, very serious brutality and intimidation of the press. It's a nasty business."
It is indeed. China is the world's largest jailer of journalists, with 26 Chinese journalists currently imprisoned. And these types of coercion and their chilling effects are not recent inventions. The Foreign Correspondents Club of China reports more than 260 cases of reporting interference since January 1, 2007, including cases involving violence, detention, harassment, being questioned in an intimidating manner and being followed.
In reports issued in 2007 and 2008, Human Rights Watch catalogues incidents described by foreign journalists, including, disturbingly, intimidation of foreign reporters by plainclothes thugs who appear to be working in tandem with government and police officials. A photographer based in Beijing described being followed by suspected plainclothes policemen in black sedans during a reporting trip in Henan province. She was harassed by the men, who refused to identify themselves. That same day the photographer and her colleague were briefly detained by the police. A European television journalist was "detained and beaten by plainclothes thugs while doing a story on civil unrest in Shengyou village in Hebei province," according to HRW. A local official told the reporter she had misinterpreted China's temporary regulations on media access, and the incident ended with the reporter's interview footage being erased.
In another case, a foreign television correspondent told HRW that officials with China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs threatened to deny accreditation for the Olympics to the broadcaster's foreign-based staff after the correspondent "publicly complained about being harassed and detained by government officials in Anbai province," according to HRW. Foreign affairs ministry officials informed one of the producers with the correspondent's bureau that approval of Olympics accreditations for the broadcaster's foreign-based staff was "in jeopardy unless the correspondent issued a public apology or correction," which the correspondent refused to do.
Reports of journalistic "lockdown," do not augur well for the Games. Still, the Chinese government does pay close attention to Western media coverage. Certain media-literate officials may recognize that if China is to become a leader in the world community, it must stop harassing and imprisoning journalists. Accordingly, now is the time for the world community to urge China to adopt more open policies toward the press. The Games are not simply a good place to begin. The Games are the greatest stage on the planet. And the show can be either a Hitlerian scrap of propaganda or a new Olympian step forward.
Sally Jean Kearney, a senior writer-editor with the FDIC and a former Senate staff writer, is currently a student in Georgetown University's Master of Professional Studies in Journalism Program.