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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Media: China's forbidden zone for journalists

July 9, 2008

By Shailesh Palekar,  UPI Correspondent
UPI Asia
July 7, 2008

Hong Kong, China -- One month ahead of the Beijing Olympics, when
reporting freedoms in China for news media should be at an all-time
high, correspondents face severe difficulty in accessing "forbidden
zones" -- geographical areas and topics which the Chinese government
considers sensitive, according to a report released Monday in Hong
Kong by Human Rights Watch.

The 71-page report, "China's Forbidden Zones: Shutting the Media out
of Tibet and Other 'Sensitive' Stories," is based on more than 60
interviews with correspondents in China between December 2007 and
June 2008. It documents the intimidation and obstruction of foreign
correspondents and their sources by government officials.

There appears to be a growing fear among Chinese officials that media
exposure of official wrongdoing and documentation of social unrest
could embarrass the government and tarnish its image ahead of the
Olympic Games next month.

The Chinese government has also prohibited local media from
publishing news that shows the government in a poor light, leaving
the foreign media as the only source of factual reporting on a
variety of crucial issues, the report said.

"Proponents and critics of the Beijing Games agreed on one thing,
that fewer restrictions for international media and scrutiny would
constitute progress," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director
of Human Rights Watch. "Yet the Chinese government, with the help of
the International Olympic Committee, has done its best to impede progress."

Most recently, the report says, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
declined to investigate death threats made against more than ten
correspondents and their family members. Last September, senior
Reuters correspondent Chris Buckley was beaten and detained by
plainclothes thugs after interviewing rural citizens who had come to
Beijing seeking redress for abuses committed by local authorities.
The petitioners were being held at an illegal detention facility in
Beijing. A journalist from a European news network suffered similar
treatment while reporting on unrest in Hebei province the following month.

A number of news organizations have complained of difficulties in
obtaining visas and press accreditation to cover the Olympics. Others
have voiced concerns about restricted access to venues such as
Tiananmen Square.

"These constraints limit what the estimated 25,000 correspondents
going to China for the Olympics can cover," Richardson said.
"Journalists who try to report objectively on the complex realities
of modern China are facing real risks, despite the government's
commitments to give them greater freedom."

Another area that remains virtually closed to foreign media is Tibet.
Although the government announced on June 26 that it would reopen the
region sealed to foreign media after riots broke out in March,
journalists have discovered that the application procedures make it
almost impossible for foreign journalists to travel to Tibet.
Besides, many local Tibetans have been unwilling to talk to foreign
reporters for fear of retribution by local authorities.

In 2001, the Chinese government promised the International Olympic
Committee that it would respect free expression in the run-up to the
Beijing Games. Temporary regulations in effect from January 1, 2007
to October 17, 2008, found in the "Service Guide for Foreign Media,"
allow foreign journalists to conduct interviews freely without having
to first obtain official consent ­ but the same rules do not apply to
Chinese journalists.

Juliet Ye, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, said, "Mainland
Chinese are not supposed to report for the international media from
back in China. However, based in Hong Kong, I can get a byline or a
tagline. If I am in the mainland I will have to be a news assistant
or a researcher to get a tagline."

Although reporting conditions remain cordial in Hong Kong and the
temporary regulations on the mainland have shown marginal
improvements according to some correspondents, the majority say that
little has improved when reporting on sensitive issues like
corruption, ethnic conflicts, social unrest, public health crises and
human rights, which government officials are determined to conceal.

In the aftermath of the May 12 Sichuan earthquake, there was an
unusual openness in granting foreign journalists access to the
quake-hit areas. However, when reports emerged blaming corrupt
officials and developers for the poor quality of buildings that
collapsed in the quake, obstructionist tactics came back into play.
On June 3, police forcibly removed an Associated Press reporter and
two photographers from the scene of a protest against China's
one-child policy by parents of students killed in the earthquake.

The gap between government rhetoric and reality for foreign
journalists remains considerable, the HRW report says. It also blames
the International Olympic Committee for not publicly criticizing the
Chinese government for its violation of media freedom pledges. "In
April 2008, while foreign journalists were barred from Tibet and some
were receiving death threats amidst a state media-driven vilification
of Western media bias, the head of the IOC press commission, Kean
Gosper, praised the open-mindedness of the Chinese government in
supporting the interests of international journalists," Richardson said.

Suppressing media freedom represents a betrayal of the Chinese
government's commitment to the IOC as well as the international
community to foster and develop basic human rights across China, the
report concluded. Richardson has appealed to heads of state visiting
Beijing for the Olympics to pressure the Chinese government to
respect the temporary regulations on media freedom and foreign
journalists before they officially expire on Oct. 17.

"It's in the interest of the IOC and the foreign heads of state who
will attend the Beijing Olympics to try to ensure that media freedom
is a lasting legacy of the Games rather than a broken promise,"
Richardson said.
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