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Restrictions on Net Access in China Seem Relaxed
NYT[Saturday, August 02, 2008 01:10]
By ANDREW JACOBS

BEIJING, August 1 - The Chinese authorities appear to have lifted some of the restrictions that blocked Web sites for journalists working at the Olympic Village although other politically sensitive sites, including those on Tibet, remained inaccessible on Friday morning.
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Times journalists and special contributors explore the Olympics in Beijing and on the Web from every angle — the politics, the culture and the competition.

The government made no announcement about the partial lifting of its firewall, and it was unclear if the change was temporary.

The International Olympic Committee on Friday also sought to counter statements on Wednesday by one of its top press officials that suggested that I.O.C. negotiators had quietly acquiesced to the restrictions. Giselle Davies, a spokeswoman for the organizing committee, said a misunderstanding had led to the contradictory versions of events, but she stressed that Olympic organizers have always been adamant about unfettered Internet access for the 20,000 foreign journalists who will be covering the athletic competition, which begins on Aug. 8.

The loosening of restrictions, however limited, came after senior committee officials on Thursday spoke with Olympic organizers and urged them to reconsider their decision to maintain a ban on politically sensitive sites, which critics said violated previous pledges China had made to provide uncensored Internet access to reporters.

Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Beijing organizing committee, declined to confirm whether there had been a change in policy. “We are fulfilling a promise to provide good working conditions for reporters covering the Olympic Games,” he said in a telephone interview. “Internet access is sufficient and convenient.”

On Friday morning, Web sites for Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Radio Free Asia and the Chinese language service of the BBC — all of which had previously been blocked — could be viewed at the Olympic Village. Although their availability was inconsistent, the pages could also be read in other parts of Beijing. Other sites, however, including those that discuss Tibet, Chinese dissidents and the 1989 demonstrations at Tiananmen Square, remained blocked.

On Thursday, two high-ranking I.O.C. officials said they expected a change in policy after having spoken with Chinese authorities. “We trust them to keep their promise,” the officials said in a statement.

Until now, the Chinese authorities had remained resolute. Mr. Sun said reporters arriving in China in the coming week should not expect access to Web sites that discussed topics such as Taiwanese independence or the Falun Gong, a banned spiritual group that China has deemed an “evil cult.” Such sites, he said, “contain information that is in breach of Chinese law.”

He added that the authorities would not monitor the personal e-mail messages of reporters at the main press center for the Games. “We always have been following international law on such matters,” he said.

T. Kumar, the Asia advocacy director for Amnesty International, said he was pleased previously blocked sites were available but skeptical they would remain so. “We urge the International Olympic Committee to exert pressure on China so that those attending the Games — and ordinary Chinese citizens — can enjoy freedom of expression and movement,” he said.

On a related issue, the Chinese government, responding to President Bush’s meeting with prominent Chinese dissidents at the White House, sharply condemned Washington for interfering in China’s domestic affairs and accused American legislators of politicizing the Games.

Shortly after Mr. Bush held talks on Tuesday with the five dissidents — Harry Wu, Wei Jingsheng, Rebiya Kadeer, Sasha Gong and Bob Fu — the House of Representatives passed a resolution urging China to honor its pledge to improve human rights before the Games, which begin Aug. 8. The resolution passed 419 to 1.

Juliet Macur contributed reporting.
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