The treatment of the media during the military crackdown in Tibet, and the protests during the Olympic torch procession, have, for many, finally dispelled any hopes that the games would be instrumental in moving China towards greater press freedom.
During the IOC’s decision-making process, the Chinese government made a number of commitments to improve human rights and to give the media complete freedom when they arrive in China.
Despite its pronouncements, China has come in for sustained criticism from press freedom and human-rights organisations for its treatment of journalists both foreign and local, and for its record on imprisoning journalists.
The Chinese government’s tendency to view any coverage of protest or opposition as being tantamount to expressions of support remains unchanged, and its obsession with its image has been evident in its angry response towards the Western media’s coverage of the torch procession.
Hopes that press freedom in China might increase as a result of the games may not have come to fruition, but Paul Mason, Newsnight’s new economics editor, believes the decision by the Chinese authorities to drop the minder system is significant.
Speaking at a workshop at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London last week, for journalists who are going to Beijing, Mason said that before the new rules for foreign media were introduced in January 2007, the biggest restriction came from having to have a government official stay with you throughout your visit.
The system was so effective, says Mason, that there was no need for censorship. The presence of the official alone meant that people were unlikely to speak openly, and movement was hampered by tight agendas imposed by the official that included dinners with other officials every night.
Travelling to China after the new rules took effect, Mason found he was able to conduct interviews that would not have been possible previously.
The rules for foreign media, that include a lifting of restrictions on travel and freedom to interview anyone who has given their consent, are due to expire in October 2008.
But journalists who are going to China should work to have the minder system dropped permanently, says Mason: ‘[Journalists] should take it while it’s there, but it’s also up to us to try and press them to keep the new system – and to show them that we’re not going to abuse it.”
Journalists should also assume that they are under surveillance at all times. Urging them to ‘think like Ian Fleming’Mason’s advice is to avoid doing anything which could discredit you if it appeared on camera.
While journalists were urged to get out of Beijing and make the effort to meet as many different people as they could, Corinna-Barbara Francis, an Amnesty International expert on China, warns that the Chinese people themselves will be in most danger. Journalists should take into account the fact that the authorities seem often to reserve the greatest punishment for those who pass on information.
‘Do you allow the person to make the choice of putting themselves at risk?’she asks. ‘You have to make sure they are aware of the risks they are taking.”
The need for journalists to ensure that the people they interview are fully aware of the risks was backed up by Dr Yuwen Wu, editor of news and current affairs for the BBC World Service’s Chinese service.
On a recent assignment in China, John Simpson, the BBC’s foreign affairs editor, intervened after a man he interviewed was threatened with arrest. But although police had released the man after Simpson’s fixer spoke to them, it was later discovered that he had been arrested when he returned to his village.
The extent of China’s preoccupation with its image is evidenced in the unprecedented length of the Olympic torch procession, says Francis, who believes it is its determination not to allow its image to be damaged that has driven many of its policies, including the crackdown on Falun Gong, and in Tibet.
‘Be aware that as journalists you create images, and so be conscious that China is intensely aware of the image that is being projected,’says Francis.
Pointing to the economic growth that has driven huge changes in China, former China correspondent Rob Gifford says he could have written a good-news story everyday of the six years he worked there, but by the same token could have written a human rights story every day.
‘You are either a panda lover, or a dragon slayer,’says Gifford, who is currently London correspondent for the USA’s National Public Radio, but he adds that journalists should work to avoid these two extremes and try to present the truth of what they see.
During the violence in Tibet and the Olympic torch protests, there were expressions of hostility towards the Western media that are entirely in line with the growing nationalism among young people in China.
Greater access to the web doesn’t mean young people are ‘going onto the internet to find out how to overthrow their government,’says Gifford.
Since Tiananmen Square the government has done a deal with the people that means they can enjoy freedom as long as they stay out of politics, he says.
‘The urban Chinese have bought the deal, they have the car, the laptop, the vacations in Thailand,’argues Gifford.
Journalists who go to the games should also be prepared for expressions of hostility from a militantly pro-government youth, who are increasingly hostile to the Western media.