German Olympic Chief under Fire Politicians Allege Official 'Trivialized' Chinese Internet Censorship

The chief of the German Olympic Committee has come under fire for comments critics say trivialize China's move last week to block journalists' access to some Web sites. The international community is concerned journalists will face significant hurdles in their reporting on the games.

When China won the competition to host the 2008 Summer Games, it had to promise the International Olympics Committee (IOC) that reporters would be unfettered in their ability to cover the event. Recent moves to block reporters' Internet access to sites critical of the regime, however, have put the IOC on the defense -- forcing officials to explain how the Chinese government could be allowed to censor the media in the run-up to Friday's games.

In the latest development, the head of the German Olympic Committee has come under fire for comments many say trivialize China's moves in recent days to block reporters' access to Web sites.

Former Green Party politician and sports minister for the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia Michael Vesper told public broadcaster ARD on Sunday night that Web sites are blocked in every country, including Germany. "Here in Germany we block the Web sites of right-wing radicals," 56-year-old Vesper said. "And it's natural that China would also block some sites. But they have to provide access to the important information that journalists need in order to be able to do their jobs."

The chairman of the sports committee in Germany's federal parliament, Peter Danckert of the center-left Social Democrats, called Vesper's choice of words "odd." He said Vesper's remarks had been inappropriate. "We're not talking about Internet sites with prosecutable content," he told the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper. "We're talking about Amnesty International."

"Trivializing and Justifying China's Actions"

The Green Party's party whip in parliament, Volker Beck, described Vesper's choice of words as "absurd" and "irritating." "Instead of demanding that the Chinese ensure freedom of the press," he said, "Vesper is trivializing and justifying China's actions."

Michael Vesper, the head of Germany's Olympic Committee, has been accused of trivializing China's move last week to block journalists' access to some Web sites.

Michael Vesper, the head of Germany's Olympic Committee, has been accused of trivializing China's move last week to block journalists' access to some Web sites.

Officials at the German branch of Reporters without Borders also expressed their outrage over Vesper. "The comparison is unacceptable," Executive Director Elke Schäfer told public radio station Deutschlandfunk.

On Wednesday, Vesper responded to the criticism while attending the opening of the German House at the Olympics in Beijing, distancing himself from his earlier remarks. "I am a strict opponent of Internet censorship," he told reporters. He said he had not tried to place Chinese Internet censorship on the same level as the blocking of right-wing extremists sites in Germany.

Vesper said that after he learned of the site-blocking last Wednesday, he had "very clearly expressed that he found the blocking of Internet sites unacceptable." He said that although Chinese officials, under pressure from the IOC, have taken steps to lift some curbs on information, they still needed to do more.

The German Journalists' Association (DJV) is also calling on Chinese officials to refrain from issuing new limitations on reporters and from making reprisals against them. DJV chairman Michael Konken said that the freedom to report at the Olympic Games was "acutely threatened."

In the latest development, the Beijing city government announced on Tuesday that journalists would be "advised" to make appointments in order to report and film on Tiananmen Square, the site of a 1989 regime crackdown that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of student demonstrators. The city said it expected large crowds on the square and wanted reporting to be done in an orderly manner.

Earlier this week a small group of Beijing residents unhappy with the compensation they were given when their homes were destroyed by the city were forcibly removed from Tiananmen Square by police. And on Wednesday, the first foreign protest action took place in Beijing just days before the start of the games. Two Britons and two Americans scaled a Beijing bridge and unfurled a sign near Olympic Stadium reading, "One World One Dream Free Tibet." According to wire reports, police moved quickly to detain the men.

An Unpleasant Surprise

China sparked global outrage last week when journalists found that journalists' access to major Western media and NGO sites had been blocked, including the BBC and Amnesty International. In an interview with the Frankurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Hein Verbruggen who is responsible for the International Olympic Committee's (IOD) ties with the Beijing organizers, said the IOC had been taken by surprise by Beijing's Internet censorship against journalists. He said the IOC's contract with Beijing stipulates that it guarantee that reporters be unrestrained in their reporting on the games.

"IOC President Jacques Rogge and I both believed (according to the contract) that Internet access would be free," Verbruggen told the newspaper. "But suddenly things were different, and that came as a surprise to us."

Meanwhile, the German government's human rights commissioner, Günther Nooke, arrived in Beijing for a four-day visit on Tuesday. The politician, a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union party, plans to meet with civil rights activists, academics and church and media representatives shortly before the start of the Olympic Games in order to assess the current human rights situation in the country. Nooke is not planning to meet with any government representatives.

On Wednesday, more than 100 international athletes, including participants in the Beijing Olympics, published an open letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao in the globally published International Herald Tribune calling on the regime to respect human rights.

The signatories asked Hu to "enable a peaceful solution for the issue of Tibet and other conflicts in your country with respect to the principles of human rights," to protect freedom of expression, religious and opinion, to ensure human rights defenders are no longer intimidated or imprisoned and to stop implementing the death penalty.

"Your decision on these issues will determine the success of the Olympic Games and the image the world will have of China in the future," the letter stated.

At least one German athlete has said she will not participate in the opening ceremony on Friday in protest against Chinese human rights violations. After arriving in Beijing earlier this week, fencer Imke Duplitzer told journalists she didn't want to take part in the Chinese government's elaborate staging. "I don't need to be a part of that," she told cable news channel N24. "If I wanted to join the circus, I would have done so."

Earlier this summer, Duplitzer told SPIEGEL, "I think the Chinese regime was awarded the games too soon, but the people of China certainly earned the right."



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