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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

20,000 journalists Get Ready for the Beijing Olympics

May 27, 2008

Just how much freedom will they have to report what is happening on and off the track?
Phil Harding
The Guardian (UK)
May 26 2008

In Beijing's bid for the 2008 Olympics, the guarantee was clear and unmistakable: "there will be no restrictions on media reporting and movement of journalists up to and including the Olympic games".

In a country that keeps such a tight grip on its own media and which severely restricts access to its markets by foreign media companies - resisting even the persistent blandishments of Rupert Murdoch - it is a guarantee that has been hotly disputed ever since. In just under three months' time, amid some very mixed signals from the authorities, just over 20,000 journalists and broadcasters will descend on the Chinese capital to put it to the test.

Ever since the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced in 2001 that this year's games had been awarded to Beijing, it has been clear that they were going to be the most politically sensitive since the boycotted Moscow Olympics of 1980, possibly even since the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Ashling O'Connor, Olympics correspondent for the Times, believes that is bound to shape the reporting: "Normally once the games actually begin, the coverage is pretty much confined to the sports pages. This time because the Chinese authorities have left so many questions unanswered these games are going to be on the news and foreign pages too."


The journalist advocacy group, Reporters Without Borders, has singled out China as the world's leading jailer of journalists, with at least 33 imprisoned at the start of this year. Sports and news editors' in-boxes have been flooded with emails from human rights groups. Given the highly controversial nature of these games and given China's record on media freedom is it going to be possible to report freely?

Lindsey Hilsum, Beijing correspondent for Channel 4 News, says the big tests will come when the games start: "Will the internet really be uncensored? Will journalists be free to travel? Will CNN and BBC World not be blacked out any more?"

In January 2007 the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced that accredited foreign journalists would be free to travel in China, outside Tibet and the Muslim western region of Xinjiang, without official permission. In practice, this has only partly happened. In the last fortnight access for the foreign media to the disaster areas of the Sichuan earthquake has been relatively unrestricted. But during the Tibet disturbances in March more than 40 journalists were turned away from covering protests in neighbouring regions, and some were detained. The Guardian's Jonathan Watts made a video of his frustrating trip calling it "7 Days not in Tibet".

The important difference is that the Tibet protests were political, the earthquake emergency is not. Jon Williams, the BBC's world news editor, says of the government's attitude overall: "When they've been good, they've been very good, when they've been bad they've been horrid."

Free access to the internet in China - another promise for the Olympics - has always been problematic. Via the "Great FireWall of China", there is strict control on what can be seen and what can't. When challenged over access to the BBC news site, the Chinese government always denied blocking and cited "technical problems". This year in March during the Tibet demonstrations, the Guardian site was briefly blocked in China for the first time.

Then at the end of March - and just before an inspection visit by the IOC - the BBC News site in English suddenly and without explanation was unblocked for the first time in 10 years. But the BBC's Chinese-language site has stayed off limits. The internet now mirrors what happens with the World Service's radio broadcasts where the Chinese broadcasts are jammed while the English programmes are not.

After their most recent visit, the IOC said they "were satisfied by the assurances we received across a number of areas including internet access". But a month later, China's technology minister, Wan Gang, was less clear: "I've not got any clear information about which sites will be screened or shut ... Every country limits access to some websites". According to Hilsum, internet access still "comes and goes", Wikipedia sometimes disappears, sites such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are still blocked: "I would not be surprised if all the English sites are unblocked for the three weeks of the Olympics. The big issue will be what happens after that."

The most important window on this summer's games will be television. It is the television images that will set the tone for the games. The worldwide audience is expected to top 4 billion viewers. Dave Gordon, who as BBC Sport's head of major events is in overall charge of the BBC's Olympic coverage, says: "This to me is a huge challenge of a story. My first Olympics was Moscow. This is even more of a challenge." It is significant that for these games the BBC has decided not to treat the opening ceremony as just another sporting event. Its coverage will be fronted by Huw Edwards from News alongside Hazel Irvine from Sport with expert analysis from Carrie Gracie, the former Beijing correspondent.

Pictures of the ceremony and sporting events will come almost exclusively from a pool feed provided by the Olympic host broadcaster, Beijing Olympic Broadcasting, a joint Chinese-foreign company set up specifically for these games. For each event there will be one set of identical pictures from each venue available to each broadcast rights holder. In all there will be some 3,800 hours of live feeds. At any one time broadcasters will have up to 20 feeds coming in. As the Chinese have a track record of censoring television coverage they don't like, possible censorship of the Olympics has become a real issue.

At one time it was reported that the Chinese authorities had asked for a delay on the live feeds. But Gordon says: "We have been given absolute assurances that the feeds will be live." But what is not yet clear is what the policy of the host broadcaster will be on coverage of any demonstrations. For Gordon this is fundamental: "We will expect all events to be fully covered in the stadium whether it's on the field or off the field action. We don't want any editorial decisions made for us." But, just in case, the BBC will have its own unilateral cameras at some events "able to capture what we need if we need to".

French television has said if there is any censorship of the pictures, they will boycott coverage. What can domestic Chinese audiences expect to see during the Olympics? Until the non-stop coverage of the earthquake eclipsed all other news, the tone of much of the Olympic coverage on CCTV had been remorselessly upbeat and euphoric. Step-by-step reports on the progress of the torch relay through China were regularly the lead item on the news. On one day just the dress rehearsal for the relay in Macao made the second lead. Coverage of the earlier protests in the west was much more circumspect. What has also come across strongly from Chinese media coverage is the real sense of hurt and anger at the way the western media have concentrated so much on protests and abuses of human rights. Both the BBC and CNN have encountered fierce protests about their coverage (there is now a Chinese website called Many of the comments also seem to express genuine puzzlement at what they see as the dismissal of China's best efforts to offer the world a peaceful torch rally, coupled with a spectacular Olympics. Some bloggers see a western-led conspiracy between Washington and Paris.

In the next few weeks the media spotlight will inevitably switch away from the earthquake and back to the Olympics. For those covering the games, it will be a tricky and pressurised time. If the Olympics are portrayed as a well-organised success, the media will be accused of falling for a Chinese propaganda exercise. On the other hand, if there are protests and they are properly covered, there will be accusations from the Chinese that the actions of an unrepresentative minority have been magnified out of proportion. Jon Williams warns against journalists going to China with too many preconceptions: "It would be wrong for us to start with a fixed mind to cover the games through the prism of Tibet and protest. But on the other hand we have to be prepared for any events if they do happen."
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