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Covering the Olympics

July 9, 2008

The Wall Street Journal Asia
July 7, 2008

In 2001, China's Communist leaders promised the International Olympic
Committee to allow free press access to both the 2008 Beijing
Olympics and the country as a whole. So far signs aren't good that
Beijing will stick to its word.

Witness the case of Norman Choy, a senior reporter with Hong Kong's
Apple Daily who was turned away at the Beijing airport on July 1. Mr.
Choy intended to cover events related to the Games; he is one of more
than 20,000 journalists expected to report on China in relation to
the Olympics over the next six weeks. Yet upon landing in Beijing,
immigration officials pulled him aside and questioned him about his
travel plans. They then confiscated Mr. Choy's "home return" travel
permit ­ which allows Hong Kong Chinese visa-free access to the
mainland -- citing national security law, and put him on the next flight home.

Mr. Choy and his editors still await a formal explanation for which
section of the law he might have violated. It's a smart bet Mr.
Choy's "offense" was working for Apple Daily, a vigorously
pro-democracy paper that publishes editions in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
But he's not alone. Reporters Without Borders says it's received
several complaints in recent months from European journalists, mostly
free-lancers, who are encountering inexplicable snags in applying for
visas to enter China around the time of the Games.

This is all part of a nationwide pattern. Whether it's this spring's
uprising in Tibet or the torch relay in the restive western Xinjiang
province, foreign correspondents have run into a wall of official
restraints and resistance, as Phelim Kine of Human Rights Watch
documents here. Even when Beijing has briefly allowed foreign
reporters into trouble spots, such as the areas hit by the Sichuan
earthquake in May, it has quickly tamped down again. Reports of
various kinds of intimidation all over the country are rife.

Starting tomorrow, the roughly 5,600 journalists accredited to cover
the sporting events are supposed to be able to enter using their
Olympic press cards in lieu of visas. They will file stories on the
athletes and events. But that will be only part of the China story
this summer. Beijing promised to allow journalists to cover the rest
of it ­ not least in a new press law issued in December 2006 that was
supposed to provide easier nationwide access to foreign reporters.
The next few weeks will show whether it intends to keep its word
instead of delivering only "press freedom" with Chinese characteristics.
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