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China relaxes decades-old restrictions on media

October 20, 2008

Jane Macartney in Beijing
The Sunday Times (UK)
October 19, 2008

China waited until the last minute to announce that it would enshrine
freedoms granted to foreign journalists to report in the country
during the Olympic Games.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had relaxed the decades-old
regulations on January 1, 2007, allowing the foreign media to conduct
interviews with anyone without first obtaining government permission
until last Friday.

The freedoms had been due to expire, but the Foreign Ministry made
its announcement of their extension just as the clock struck the
hour. It appeared that a fierce internal debate over whether, or how,
to relax the reporting rules had resulted in protracted negotiations
among various government departments and delayed the announcement.

Liu Jianchao, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said: "This is not only a
big step forward for China in opening up to the outside world, for
the foreign journalists it's also a big step."

The decision could be among the most far-reaching liberalisations for
the foreign media, kept on a tight leash for decades -- at times
barely allowed to travel beyond the outskirts of Beijing – if it is
fully implemented.

The view of the authorities was reflected in the headline of an
announcement in state media that read: "China removes restrictive
rules on foreign correspondents reporting."

The statement said the new rules would make a standard practice of
the temporary Olympic rules. Those freedoms allowed journalists to
interview any consenting Chinese without having first to seek
government permission.

In addition, journalists were allowed to travel and to report outside
the city for which they were accredited without having to apply for
authorisation a minimum of 10 days in advance from the local government.

The new rules remove an item in the regulations requiring foreign
reporters to get approval from the Foreign Ministry to visit regions
not open and to register with the police.

However, Tibet will remain off-limits with permission required from
local authorities to visit the restive Himalayan region.

The Foreign Correspondents Club of China welcomed the decision. "If
properly implemented, we believe this will mark a step forward in the
opening of China's media environment."

However, the club said there remained a need for local officials to
follow the new regulations. Jonathan Watts, the club president, said:
"We urge the government to ensure that police and local officials
respect the spirit as well as the letter of the new rules."

China has prevented foreign media from entering many
Tibetan-populated areas since anti-Chinese demonstrations swept the
region in March, saying entry would be unsafe. However, access was
allowed to many areas devastated by a huge earthquake in May for
several weeks.
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