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China eases restrictions for foreign journalists

October 20, 2008

The Associated Press
October 18, 2008

BEIJING (AP) -- China took a further step toward opening itself to
the world, announcing Friday that an easing of restrictions on
foreign journalists enacted for the Olympics would become permanent.

Premier Wen Jiabao signed the new decree, which took immediate
effect, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao at a late-night
news conference.

Under the new regulations, which had been anticipated by journalists,
foreign reporters would not be required to get government permission
to travel within the country or to interview Chinese citizens.

"This is not only a big step forward for China in opening up to the
outside world, it is also a big step for further facilitating
reporting activities by foreign journalists," Liu said.

China had loosened its decades-old controls on foreign reporters --
which included requiring government permission for all interviews and
travel — at the beginning of 2007. The changes were part of the
Communist country's pledge to increase media freedom, which helped
Beijing's bid to host the 2008 Olympics.

The Olympic rules were set to expire at midnight Friday. China had
refused to say earlier whether it would extend the rules past that deadline.

Even under the relaxed rules, foreign journalists and monitoring
groups complained that Chinese authorities still harassed and
occasionally detained journalists in the run-up to the Olympics.

During the games, there were multiple instances -- at least 30 cases
-- of reporting interference, according to the FCCC.

The new rules replace regulations on foreign media coverage
originally established in 1990, after the crackdown on pro-democracy
demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.

However, journalists will still not be allowed to travel to the
restive region of Tibet and other restricted areas without getting
special permission from local authorities, Liu said.

In addition, China's tight grip over domestic journalists remains
unchanged, with all state media remaining under government control.
Chinese citizens are also not allowed to work as journalists for
foreign media organizations.

However, Liu said the country's leaders are moving toward reform in
many different areas, including the press.

"It's China's basic policy to reform and open up. Why should we keep
opening up? Because we need to have better understanding, mutual
understanding with the world. An important part of this is the
press," Liu said.

"Opening up is very important. I believe in the past year and a half,
China has improved a lot in this regard, and I believe it will do an
even better job in the future," he said.

Liu said the new regulations would be clearly explained to local
governments as well as public security agencies, with continued
training and workshops.

"I am confident that this new regulation will be implemented
faithfully and soundly," he said. "Still, there is a process, and we
need your constructive cooperation so this regulation will be implemented well.

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China welcomed the decision to
extend the Olympic reporting rules.

"If properly implemented, we believe this will mark a step forward in
the opening of China's media environment," said club president Jonathan Watts.

"We urge the government to ensure that police and local officials
respect the spirit as well as the letter of the new rules. The easing
of controls for foreign journalists should not be achieved at the
expense of putting more pressure on local sources," he said.

Lucie Morillon, Washington director of Reporters Without Borders,
said foreign journalists "are better off today than before these
rules were applied. Everything now is a continuation of the rules
they got used to this past month ... even if the rules were violated
on numerous occasions."

But she also called the move by China "a missed opportunity because
the end of the temporary regulations should have been the opportunity
to introduce rules granting real freedom of movement, including in
Tibet, and freedom to interview people, especially officials,
combined with protection for the confidentiality of journalists,
communications and sources."

"Another issue is the fate of Chinese journalists and interpreters
who are employed by the foreign press, and their situation is very
precarious, and in the long run, we would like to see more freedom
for Chinese reporters and the end of official censorship," Morillon said.

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