Free Speech China Lifts Internet Restrictions on Olympic Journalists

An uproar over Internet blockages for international reporters in the Olympic media center in Beijing has led, for now, to less censorship. But Chinese President Hu Jintao personally asked reporters on Friday to "abide by Chinese laws."

Back online, but not quite free.

Back online, but not quite free.

After a groundswell of criticism for trying to censor foreign journalists ahead of the Olympics, organizers in China have agreed to lift restrictions on Internet access for media during the Games.

"The problem is solved," said International Olympic Committee (IOC) Vice President Gunilla Lindberg, adding that IOC officials had reached an agreement with BOCOG, the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad, to open Internet access for journalists. "Now the Internet can be used used freely, as in all previous Olympic Games."

But the Internet was supposed to be open to foreign journalists from the start. And in spite of Lindberg's enthusiasm, freedom to roam the Web was not absolute. Reporters in the Olympic press headquarters in Beijing nevertheless said certain sites were visible again Friday morning. They could read, among other sites, Radio Free Asia, the official American news service, the BBC, Wikipedia and the sites of groups that have been sharply critical of Beijing, like Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders.

The Olympics open August 8, and the foreign press has been busy in Beijing. Internet blockages have led to an uproar because the IOC had promised foreign reporters unfettered access.

"Maybe there was a caution on the side of BOCOG that we didn't anticipate and which caught us all by surprise," said IOC press chief Kevan Gosper on Friday, according to Reuters. "It was running counter to the assurances that (the IOC) had given, that these Games, for reporting, would be uncensored."

For ordinary Chinese, of course, the Internet and other media are strictly controlled -- not by Beijing alone. Western corporations like Microsoft, Google and Yahoo have worked with Communist authorities to block sites that refer, for example, to Tibet's liberation movement or human-rights abuses in China.

"Many of these western firms have bowed to Chinese pressure," said Constanze Kurz, a computer scientist at Berlin's Humboldt University, to a German radio station Friday morning. "The services they offer in China are filtered."

'A Veiled Threat' from China's President

Also on Friday, at a rare press conference in Beijing, Chinese President Hu Jintao asked journalists for "objective reports" and hoped they would "abide by Chinese laws and regulations." He wanted to prevent the Olympic Games from being "politicized," he said. Bringing politics to the Games would contradict the Olympic spirit, he said, and "would in the end bury the Olympic movement."

But a researcher for Human Rights Watch, Nicholas Bequelin, told the Associated Press that "objective reports" was code for toeing the Communist party line. "The implication is that foreign journalists should refrain from reporting stories that the government finds critical," he said. "This is not far from being a veiled threat to journalists."

Web-surfing restrictions haven't been the only problem. In early July Johannes Hano, a correspondent for German TV broadcaster ZDF, was filming a live interview with an American expert on China's Great Wall. Hano said he had all the right permits, but Chinese police walked in front of the cameras and stopped the broadcast anyway. "The official reason," Hano told SPIEGEL, "was that 'There is no such thing as American experts on walls, because there is no Great Wall in America.'"


With reporting by Andreas Lorenz


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