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China to limit Web access during Olympic Games
International Herald Tribune[Thursday, July 31, 2008 07:08]
By Andrew Jacobs

Foreign journalists using the Internet at the Olympic press center in Beijing on Wednesday. Access will be limited during the Games. (Teh Eng Koon/Agence France-Presse)
Foreign journalists using the Internet at the Olympic press center in Beijing on Wednesday. Access will be limited during the Games. (Teh Eng Koon/Agence France-Presse)
The International Olympic Committee failed to press China to allow fully unfettered access to the Internet for the thousands of journalists arriving here to cover the Olympics, despite promising repeatedly that the foreign news media could "report freely" during the Games, Olympic officials acknowledged Wednesday.

Since the Olympic Village press center opened Friday, reporters have been unable to access scores of Web pages — among them those that discuss Tibetan issues, Taiwanese independence, the violent crackdown on the protests in Tiananmen Square and the Web sites of Amnesty International, the BBC's Chinese-language news, Radio Free Asia and several Hong Kong newspapers known for their freewheeling political discourse.

The restrictions, which closely resemble the blocks that China places on the Internet for its citizens, undermine sweeping claims by Jacques Rogge, the International Olympic Committee president, that China had agreed to provide free Web access for foreign news media during the Games. Rogge has long argued that one of the main benefits of awarding the Games to Beijing was that the event would make China more open.

"For the first time, foreign media will be able to report freely and publish their work freely in China. There will be no censorship on the Internet," Rogge told Agence France-Presse just two weeks ago.

But a high-ranking Olympic committee official said Wednesday that the panel was aware that China would continue to censor Web sites carrying content that the Chinese propaganda authorities deemed harmful to national security and social stability. The panel acquiesced to China's demands to maintain such controls, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not the designated public spokesman for the International Olympic Committee.

It was not immediately clear if China had provided special Internet links for overseas journalists working at the press center in the Olympic Village. But Chinese officials, speaking about the Internet restrictions on Wednesday, said they would not allow foreign journalists to visit Web sites that violated Chinese laws.

In its negotiations with the Chinese over Internet controls, the Olympic committee official said, the panel insisted only that China provide unregulated access to sites containing information useful to sports reporters covering athletic competitions, not to a broader array of sites that the Chinese and the Olympic committee negotiators determined had little relevance to sports.

The official said he now believed that the Chinese defined their national security needs more broadly than the Olympic committee had anticipated, denying reporters access to some information that they might need to cover the events and the host country fully. This week, foreign news media in China were unable directly to access an Amnesty International report that detailed what it called a deterioration in China's human rights record in the prelude to the Games.

"We are quite stunned by the decision, but we will survive this mess," the official said. Sandrine Tonge, the media relations coordinator for the committee, said it would press the Chinese authorities to reconsider.

Chinese officials initially suggested that any troubles journalists were having with Internet access probably stemmed from the sites themselves, not any steps that China had taken to filter Web content. But Sun Weide, the chief spokesman for the Beijing Olympic organizing committee, acknowledged Wednesday that journalists would not have uncensored Internet use. "It has been our policy to provide the media with convenient and sufficient access to the Internet," Sun said. "I believe our policy will not affect reporters' coverage of the Olympic Games."

Sun said foreigners accessing the Internet in China would be subject to the same laws under which censors blocked access to a wide range of Web sites thought to be detrimental to stability. China has long maintained that its laws governing Internet access do not amount to censorship and are similar to restrictions on pornography or gambling sites in many countries.

The restrictions were the latest in a string of problems that have tarnished the prelude to the Olympics, which open Aug. 8. China struggled to contain ethnic unrest in Tibetan areas this spring. The global torch relay that China organized to promote the Games was disrupted by protests. Air pollution in Beijing has remained severe despite efforts to reduce it.

In recent months, human rights advocates have accused Beijing of stepping up the detention and surveillance of those it fears could disrupt the Games. On Tuesday, President George W. Bush met with five Chinese dissidents at the White House to drive home his dissatisfaction with the pace of change. Bush, who leaves for the opening ceremonies in just over a week, also pressed China's foreign minister to ease political repression.

The White House also urged China to lift its restrictions on the Internet. "We want to see more access for reporters, we want to see more access for everybody in China to be able to have access to the Internet," the White House press secretary, Dana Perino, said Wednesday.

On Capitol Hill, Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas, introduced a resolution on Tuesday urging China to reconsider what he said were its plans to force international hotel chains to track electronic communications by its guests. At a news conference, he introduced redacted documents that he said were provided by the hotels requiring them to install government software to monitor Internet traffic during the Olympics.

Concerns about media access to the Internet intensified Tuesday, when Western journalists working at the Main Press Center in Beijing said they could not get to Amnesty International's Web site to see the group's report on China's rights record.

T. Kumar, Amnesty International's Asia advocacy director, said he thought the government hoped it could dissuade reporters from pursuing stories about human rights issues by blocking their access to Internet-based information. "This sends the wrong message not only to journalists but to anyone on his or her way to the Olympics," he said.

It was not clear how hard Olympic committee officials pushed for open access to the Internet during negotiations with the Chinese, which dated from to the decision to award Beijing the Games in 2001, or why Rogge, the Olympic chief, promised that the news media would have uncensored access during the Games when officials working for him were aware that China would keep at least some of its censorship policies in place.

Kevan Gosper, press chief of the International Olympic Committee, was quoted by Reuters on Wednesday as saying that IOC officials had agreed that China could block sites that would not hinder reporting on the Games themselves. "I also now understand that some IOC official negotiated with the Chinese that some sensitive sites would be blocked on the basis they were not considered Games-related," he told Reuters.

The senior Olympic committee official said the committee pressed hardest for unfiltered access to sites that sports reporters would need to cover athletic competitions. He said such sites included some that had been blocked in China in the past, including Wikipedia, but did not include political sites run by groups that the Beijing government considers hostile, like the spiritual sect Falun Gong.

Jonathan Watts, president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, said he was disappointed that Beijing had failed to honor its agreement to temporarily remove the firewall that prevented Chinese citizens from fully using the Internet.

"Obviously if reporters can't access all the sites they want to see, they can't do their jobs," he said. "Unfortunately such restrictions are normal for reporters in China, but the Olympics were supposed to be different."
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