Be careful what you say when in China

With 21,500 accredited and 5,000-10,000 unaccredited foreign journalists due to travel to Beijing for the Olympic Games, China’s Olympic planners have issued police with a phrasebook, which includes a section on ‘How to Stop Illegal News Coverage”.

In a report examining China’s record on press freedom in the run up to the games, the Committee to Protect Journalists has translated the section which features a police officer confronting a reporter who tries to cover a story on the outlawed religious group Falun Gong.

Called Falling Short, the report, which was first published in August last year, shows that in such situations the police are encouraged to detain journalists to ‘clear up’the matter.

Although such detentions are ‘more inconvenience than hardship’for foreign journalists, lasting two to six hours with interrogators who are ‘generally polite”, the report concludes that the Chinese authorities have failed to meet promises made to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2001, that it would allow the media complete freedom.

The New York-based press freedom watchdog points to a ‘yawning gap’between China’s press freedom record and its assurances when Beijing was awarded the Olympic Games. The report, which was updated by Sophie Beach, executive editor of China Digital Times, and CPJ research associate Madeline Earp, shows that domestic journalists face severe threats and restrictions.

‘They must avoid stories about the military, ethnic conflict, religion, and the internal workings of the party and government,’the report said. ‘Coverage directives are issued regularly on matters large and small. Authorities close publications and reassign personnel as penalties for violating censorship orders.”

At least 26 journalists are in Chinese prisons as a result of their work, making the country the world’s leading jailer of journalists for the past nine years. Violent attacks on the press are uncommon in Beijing, but are more frequent in the rest of the country.

Relaxed laws allowing foreign journalists the freedom to travel without government permission, and to interview anyone who consents, had their first major test during the ethnic demonstrations that led to rioting in the Tibet Autonomous Region in March.

The obstruction of journalists in their work showed that government officials have not adhered to temporary regulations that were introduced in January 2007 and will expire in October this year, the report says.

Overall, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China recorded more than 230 cases of harassment, obstruction, and detention since the rules were adopted. At least 10 foreign journalists reported receiving anonymous death threats, and ‘numerous’others said they received harassing phone calls, emails, and text messages, the report said.

‘Watching China prepare for the Games, it is clear the government wants the event to be flawless,’the report concludes. ‘That preoccupation has led to overly aggressive attempts to control the media. Past experience has shown that China tends to err on the side of heavy-handedness when it comes to media control and threats to the country’s image as a unified nation.”

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