How free is free?

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Bad news on the media front as the Olympics approach, I’m afraid. I know that’s not the only front the Chinese authorities are fighting on (and it often does seem like a fight), but I’m sure you will forgive a journalist a special interest in media issues.

A bit of background: when Beijing bid for the Games, it promised the International Olympic Committee that the media would have the same freedom to report as they have enjoyed at previous Olympics.

Three months ago Kevan Gosper, the top IOC press official said that meant reporters would have unimpeded access to the internet. Not too much to ask, one wouldn’t have thought.

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(It’s more than Chinese citizens get, though: they are blocked by the Great Chinese Firewall from all kinds of sites that say things the government doesn’t like – from the Chinese version of Wikipedia to Amnesty International, not to mention the banned religious group Falun Gong.)

It turns out that reporters at the two international press centers in Beijing are subject to exactly the same restrictions. I discovered this last week when I checked out the workstations at the Beijing International Media Center (BIMC) and an official said he would enquire about it.

Today the deputy head of BOCOG’s media department gave his answer to the enquiry. “We will provide our reporters with sufficient and convenient access so that their reporting of the Olympic Games will not be affected,” Sun Weide said.

Says who?

Poor Mr. Gosper, wiping the egg from his face, told Reuters later that “I ... now understand that some IOC officials negotiated with the Chinese that some sensitive sites would be blocked on the basis that they were not considered Games related.”

Which raises a question: What is Games related? It would not strike me as unreasonable if one of the thousands of foreign reporters here who do not have IOC accreditation, and who are here to write about China generally during the Games, decided to write an article about human rights.

They have, after all, generated a good deal of controversy. And the Games give an opportunity to foreign reporters to come and see for themselves, which is, after all, their job.

Nor would it be unreasonable if a reporter writing about human rights, having talked to Chinese officials about their views on the issue, decided to consult the website of Amnesty International, a prominent human rights watchdog, for an alternative perspective.

But he won’t be able to do so. How that squares with China’s commitment to allow free reporting during the Games beats me.

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