China’s broken promise

Human Rights Watch has released a new report, “China’s Forbidden Zones: Shutting the Media out of Tibet and Other ‘Sensitive’ Stories.” It said China’s government “continues to block and threaten foreign journalists despite repeated promises to lift media freedom restrictions ahead of the Olympic Games.” Excerpts from the press release:

— Local Chinese-language media is prohibited from publishing “unflattering” news ahead of the Games
— “Systematic surveillance, obstruction, intimidation of sources, and pressure on local assistants” has hobbled foreign journalists
— Some journalists have suffered “serious threats to their lives or safety” including the beating or physical removal of journalists with Reuters, AP and an European television crew
— The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has declined to investigate death threats made against more than 10 correspondents and their family members last spring
— Chinese authorities threatened to revoke press credentials of news organizations whose reports they disliked
— Despite Beijing’s documented record of ignored pledges and denial of access, the International Olympic Committee has not publicly criticized the Chinese government’s violations of media freedom pledges

The report is based on some 60 interviews with correspondents in China over a six-month period. It concludes there is intimidation and obstruction by government officials or their proxies when they pursue stories that can embarrass the authorities, expose official wrongdoing, or document social unrest.  The organization’s press release is here. The 71-page report is here.

The report should be shocking. Instead, it’s old hat. Press-freedom organizations (and others) have been railing against China with no discernible effect since before China won, in 2001, the right to host the 2008 summer Olympics. Reporters Without Borders has been on the case for years, including mostly-unheeded calls for politicians and the world audience to boycott the games, and lately more calls for government leaders to boycott the 8 August opening ceremony. Noted a recent Reporters Without Borders missive: “With a month to go to the Beijing Olympics, around 100 journalists, cyber-dissidents, bloggers and Internet users are imprisoned in China. The Chinese authorities have not kept the promises ….” The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a report last month, “Falling Short.” The International Journalists Federation set up the cyberspace version of a help line.

So what does the world do when a country wins the world’s most prestigious international plum and reneges on its promises? What do we do when a declared non-political international organization, the International Olympic Committee, obtains promises then proves (not for the first time — look back to the 1936 games in Berlin) that it is  toothless?

The seeming answer: we continue to buy more Olympics-logo stuff made in China, buy tickets to attend the games, mouth platitudes such as by the “passionate” spokespeople for athletes who just want “to compete athlete against athlete in a spirit of respect, friendship and fair play;” everywhere talk about harmonious international relations, economic progress lifting all boats, etc., etc., etc. Sure, some speak out, and receive death threats — about which we also do nothing.

Related news reports:
China seen as reneging on media-freedom vow — The Globe and Mail’s Geoffrey York in Beijing
Report: China stifling Games media — Al Jazeera
Australia’s no-gag order for athletes in Beijing — AFP on France 24
Bush to Attend Opening Ceremonies in Beijing — Wall Street Journal

Bush’s Olympic Doctrine — Christopher Finlay in the Huffington Post
The Forbidden Olympics — Wall Street Journal column by Phelim Kine (of Human Rights Watch)
Internet Journalist Sentenced to Four Years in Prison — CPJ

Rights advocates risk backfire in Olympic activism — Reuters in the Guardian