The 2008 Beijing Olympics presents a conundrum for visiting journalists. For some it will be their first time in a country that boasts a rich cultural heritage and which has enjoyed an economic boom that has put it at the centre of global politics.
It is a country that still suffers from an appalling lack of media freedom; one which became synonymous with human rights abuse after the brutal crackdown on democracy protesters in 1989. And yet it is hosting the Olympics – the greatest global celebration of sporting excellence. Many will cry foul if reporters and NGOs ‘politicise’ the Games by taking the focus away from sport and placing it on China’s human rights record.
The Beijing Olympics will be a great moment for people in China, a source of massive national pride. And there’s no reason why journalists can’t respect this while still using the ‘complete media freedom’ promised to foreign reporters to highlight the very serious issues that lie behind the colossal new Olympic venues.
Human rights have been on the agenda ever since Beijing made a bid to host the Olympics. The Chinese authorities made clear promises that the Games would bring improvements. In April 2001, Liu Jingmin, vice-president of the Beijing 2008
bid committee, said that ‘by allowing Beijing to host the Games you will help the development of human rights”. The International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge stated a year later that the IOC had ‘urged the Chinese government to improve, as soon as possible, their record in human rights”.
Yet the run-up to the Games has brought its own abuses. Ye Guozhu is one of many who objected when they were forcibly evicted to make way for Olympic venues. In August 2004, he and activist Zheng Mingfang, lawyer Ni Yulan and others applied
for permission to hold a protest against such repossessions. In December 2004, Ye Guozhu was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. We’ve recently learned that he has been tortured in detention, including being suspended from the ceiling by his arms and suffering beatings with electro-shock batons.
Much of this information is hidden from people in China by severe restrictions on media freedom. Last year, numerous newspapers and journals were shut down and dozens of journalists were detained.
The media was closely controlled around the 17th Communist Party Congress this October, and there’s good reason to believe that the same thing will happen at other key moments – such as the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square clampdown and the Olympics.
The internet also remains severely restricted with ‘cyber-dissidents’ arrested and imprisoned, blogs taken down and searches filtered.
Foreign journalists have been arrested in the past year and some detained, but have been promised ‘complete media freedom’ during the Olympics. Domestic journalists have never been offered anything of the sort. And this puts a certain responsibility on those visiting foreign journalists.
Time to speak up
This is the time to expose human rights violations in China, when the country is opened up to the foreign media: foreign journalists can, and should, look behind the PR to see what else is happening. Not to
rubbish the Games, but to tell people what is going on in the country that’s hosting them.
There are practical challenges for journalists as well – getting these stories without putting activists and other people at risk may prove difficult if visitors are monitored. Finding accurate sources of information in a country that goes out of its way to hide such things as execution statistics will also be difficult.
This month, Amnesty launches a Media Kit for journalists going to Beijing to cover the 2008 Games, with a media-friendly overview of China and human rights and a detailed focus on four key areas: media freedom, fair trials, persecution of activists and use of the death penalty. Amnesty is also hosting an accompanying seminar next year for journalists going to the Olympics.
The Beijing Olympics will be a source of national pride for China and will attract visitors, investment and media attention. It has the potential to leave a lasting legacy for ordinary Chinese people if the government lives up to its promise to show greater respect for their basic human rights. If it doesn’t, it’s up to visiting journalists to bring these failures to people’s attention as part of their reporting on the Games.
Kate Allen, director, Amnesty