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China to limit Web access during Olympic Games

August 2, 2008

By Andrew Jacobs
The International Herald Tribune (France)
July 31, 2008

The International Olympic Committee failed to press China to allow
fully unfettered access to the Internet for the thousands of
journalists arriving here to cover the Olympics, despite promising
repeatedly that the foreign news media could "report freely" during
the Games, Olympic officials acknowledged Wednesday.

Since the Olympic Village press center opened Friday, reporters have
been unable to access scores of Web pages — among them those that
discuss Tibetan issues, Taiwanese independence, the violent crackdown
on the protests in Tiananmen Square and the Web sites of Amnesty
International, the BBC's Chinese-language news, Radio Free Asia and
several Hong Kong newspapers known for their freewheeling political discourse.

The restrictions, which closely resemble the blocks that China places
on the Internet for its citizens, undermine sweeping claims by
Jacques Rogge, the International Olympic Committee president, that
China had agreed to provide free Web access for foreign news media
during the Games. Rogge has long argued that one of the main benefits
of awarding the Games to Beijing was that the event would make China more open.

"For the first time, foreign media will be able to report freely and
publish their work freely in China. There will be no censorship on
the Internet," Rogge told Agence France-Presse just two weeks ago.

But a high-ranking Olympic committee official said Wednesday that the
panel was aware that China would continue to censor Web sites
carrying content that the Chinese propaganda authorities deemed
harmful to national security and social stability. The panel
acquiesced to China's demands to maintain such controls, said the
official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not the
designated public spokesman for the International Olympic Committee.

It was not immediately clear if China had provided special Internet
links for overseas journalists working at the press center in the
Olympic Village. But Chinese officials, speaking about the Internet
restrictions on Wednesday, said they would not allow foreign
journalists to visit Web sites that violated Chinese laws.

In its negotiations with the Chinese over Internet controls, the
Olympic committee official said, the panel insisted only that China
provide unregulated access to sites containing information useful to
sports reporters covering athletic competitions, not to a broader
array of sites that the Chinese and the Olympic committee negotiators
determined had little relevance to sports.

The official said he now believed that the Chinese defined their
national security needs more broadly than the Olympic committee had
anticipated, denying reporters access to some information that they
might need to cover the events and the host country fully. This week,
foreign news media in China were unable directly to access an Amnesty
International report that detailed what it called a deterioration in
China's human rights record in the prelude to the Games.

"We are quite stunned by the decision, but we will survive this
mess," the official said. Sandrine Tonge, the media relations
coordinator for the committee, said it would press the Chinese
authorities to reconsider.

Chinese officials initially suggested that any troubles journalists
were having with Internet access probably stemmed from the sites
themselves, not any steps that China had taken to filter Web content.
But Sun Weide, the chief spokesman for the Beijing Olympic organizing
committee, acknowledged Wednesday that journalists would not have
uncensored Internet use. "It has been our policy to provide the media
with convenient and sufficient access to the Internet," Sun said. "I
believe our policy will not affect reporters' coverage of the Olympic Games."

Sun said foreigners accessing the Internet in China would be subject
to the same laws under which censors blocked access to a wide range
of Web sites thought to be detrimental to stability. China has long
maintained that its laws governing Internet access do not amount to
censorship and are similar to restrictions on pornography or gambling
sites in many countries.

The restrictions were the latest in a string of problems that have
tarnished the prelude to the Olympics, which open Aug. 8. China
struggled to contain ethnic unrest in Tibetan areas this spring. The
global torch relay that China organized to promote the Games was
disrupted by protests. Air pollution in Beijing has remained severe
despite efforts to reduce it.

In recent months, human rights advocates have accused Beijing of
stepping up the detention and surveillance of those it fears could
disrupt the Games. On Tuesday, President George W. Bush met with five
Chinese dissidents at the White House to drive home his
dissatisfaction with the pace of change. Bush, who leaves for the
opening ceremonies in just over a week, also pressed China's foreign
minister to ease political repression.

The White House also urged China to lift its restrictions on the
Internet. "We want to see more access for reporters, we want to see
more access for everybody in China to be able to have access to the
Internet," the White House press secretary, Dana Perino, said Wednesday.

On Capitol Hill, Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas,
introduced a resolution on Tuesday urging China to reconsider what he
said were its plans to force international hotel chains to track
electronic communications by its guests. At a news conference, he
introduced redacted documents that he said were provided by the
hotels requiring them to install government software to monitor
Internet traffic during the Olympics.

Concerns about media access to the Internet intensified Tuesday, when
Western journalists working at the Main Press Center in Beijing said
they could not get to Amnesty International's Web site to see the
group's report on China's rights record.

T. Kumar, Amnesty International's Asia advocacy director, said he
thought the government hoped it could dissuade reporters from
pursuing stories about human rights issues by blocking their access
to Internet-based information. "This sends the wrong message not only
to journalists but to anyone on his or her way to the Olympics," he said.

It was not clear how hard Olympic committee officials pushed for open
access to the Internet during negotiations with the Chinese, which
dated from to the decision to award Beijing the Games in 2001, or why
Rogge, the Olympic chief, promised that the news media would have
uncensored access during the Games when officials working for him
were aware that China would keep at least some of its censorship
policies in place.

Kevan Gosper, press chief of the International Olympic Committee, was
quoted by Reuters on Wednesday as saying that IOC officials had
agreed that China could block sites that would not hinder reporting
on the Games themselves. "I also now understand that some IOC
official negotiated with the Chinese that some sensitive sites would
be blocked on the basis they were not considered Games-related," he
told Reuters.

The senior Olympic committee official said the committee pressed
hardest for unfiltered access to sites that sports reporters would
need to cover athletic competitions. He said such sites included some
that had been blocked in China in the past, including Wikipedia, but
did not include political sites run by groups that the Beijing
government considers hostile, like the spiritual sect Falun Gong.

Jonathan Watts, president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of
China, said he was disappointed that Beijing had failed to honor its
agreement to temporarily remove the firewall that prevented Chinese
citizens from fully using the Internet.

"Obviously if reporters can't access all the sites they want to see,
they can't do their jobs," he said. "Unfortunately such restrictions
are normal for reporters in China, but the Olympics were supposed to
be different."
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