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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Will China clamp down on press coverage?

July 27, 2008

By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly
July 25, 2008

China's 80,000-seat National Stadium ­ nicknamed the Bird's Nest ­ in
Beijing sits ready for the Aug. 8 opening ceremonies. The new
regulations for an expected 20,000 foreign journalists covering the
2008 Olympic Games and other related stories are also in place.

Despite comments in 2001 by Wang Wei, secretary general of the
Beijing Olympic Bid Committee, suggesting the Chinese government will
provide the media safe and open reporting conditions, some
journalists based in the city say those ideal conditions don't exist.
After the Western media coverage of protests against China's Tibet
policy and subsequent violence during the Olympic torch relay, they
say there has been a recent upsurge of anti-foreign-press sentiment.

Reporters around the world learned how to operate under the new
guidelines in an Asian American Journalists Association July 14
teleconference, "Reporting in China: The Olympics and Beyond."

Panelists for the 67-minute conference call included Mary Kay
Magistad, Beijing-based Northeast Asia correspondent for Public Radio
International's "The World"; Philip P. Pan, former Beijing bureau
chief for The Washington Post and author of "Out of Mao's Shadow: The
Struggle for the Soul of a New China"; Stephen Wade, Beijing sports
reporter for the Associated Press; and Ching-Ching Ni, Beijing
correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

Richard Lui, anchor for "CNN Headline News," served as the
teleconference's moderator.

Despite China's passage of nine regulations for foreign journalists
almost two years ago, which include allowing interviews with anyone
who is willing to answer questions, Magistad said the Foreign
Correspondents Club of China continues to receive complaints from
journalists as China's restriction of foreign media goes "back and forth."

'We've logged about 250 incidents of people who have been detained or
where there has been reporting interference in these past 18 months,"
she said. "And, that's just of people who have actually come forward
and talked to us. There are a number of journalists who prefer to
keep it to themselves for whatever reason."

Once a reporter is detained, local Chinese government officials such
as police call the Foreign Ministry. Magistad says the Foreign
Ministry tells local officials, "I'm sorry. There are new
regulations. You need to let them go."

If they don't release reporters, "generally, the worst thing that can
happen to us is being kicked out of the country," Pan said. "We have
seen some reporters from Singapore (and) Hong Kong face jail time."

He urged reporters to be careful and protect their sources of
information, "especially sources who are critical of the government."
He suggests they conduct interviews before arriving at their hotel
because "when you check in, usually, the local police will be notified.

"Reporters coming in should be aware that their phones may be tapped,
their hotel rooms may be bugged," said Pan. "It's even possible that
someone could go into your hotel room and look through your notes and
look for names of people that you're trying to interview."

There are really two events starting next month, according to Wade.
They are the Olympics, itself, and China's "enormous political statement."

He explained, "China would never have taken this event on were it
simply a sporting event. This is also a statement China wants to make
about itself, about its place in the 21st century."

"This is not North Korea," Wade reminded the reporters. "This is not
as repressive a place, but it is a police state. It is an
authoritarian state, and the controls are much more subtle so you
have to be more savvy and understanding how they try to work and
manipulate you."

Many foreigners in Beijing have reported recently of visas being
revoked and residency status being changed without explanation. Pete
DeMola, a freelance writer for the Northwest Asian Weekly who has
reported on the music scene in Beijing and the volunteer force for
the Olympics, recently had to leave China sooner than expected when
he could not renew his work visa. He said in an e-mail, "The majority
of Beijing's foreign residents will also be given the boot for the
two months preceding the Games. (Apparently, the removal of the
city's 110,000 foreign residents is a form of damage control in the
event that things turn sour at the Games.)"

Ni sees foreign journalists as playing an important role in
delivering fair and accurate news to their audiences.

She says what's absent in China is "your fresh set of eyes because
you will be able to see things and just tell your audience about
something they've never seen and they don't understand."

Magistad agrees with Ni that reporters at the Olympics should try to
cover more controversial stories. "Do what you can and even if you
get a closed door in one direction, you can probably go around the
side and find at least some people who will talk to you," she advised.

"The most interesting thing might be to watch how the Chinese can
improvise," said Wade. "Certainly, stage management is their forté,
but improvising, working spontaneously, being flexible could be interesting."

For more information about the Foreign Correspondents Club of China,
go to www.fccchina.org.

James Tabafunda can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.
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