“WE WILL give the media complete freedom to report when they come to China.” So promised one of the most senior Chinese Olympic officials, Wang Wei, in 2001 on the eve of the International Olympic Committee awarding Beijing the 2008 Games.
Seven years on, and the issue that has always been a concern to international journalists: the extent to which the Communist Party would allow the world to freely opine – has become a fissure of dissent between the IOC and Chinese authorities.
How big the crack widens before the Opening Ceremony on August 8 will depend very much on China’s stance in the next week or so.
It’s not looking good. Many media can’t even get into the country. Visas are being so restricted, many television and radio networks are rejigging plans. Channels Nine and Ten have spent more than a year satisfying the paperwork for 30 or so technical and support staff. They are due to leave next week, but still do not have the necessary invitations from the Chinese government for the visas to be issued. Reporters Without Borders has received similar complaints from European journalists.
Rights holders, such as Australia’s Seven Network, aren’t having an easy time either. Like the broadcast giant NBC, the global networks that have paid many millions for the right to cover the Games are having difficulties getting satellite trucks around the city, organising scenic backdrops, obtaining allocation of frequencies. Most importantly, the reliability of transmission, particularly during any sensitive riots, protests or other such sensitive activities is a concern. The Chinese state television “live” feed, for instance, will have a 10-second delay, so any uncomfortable moments such as an athlete demonstrating, will be able to be edited out. Earlier this week, the Chinese agreed to some of the networks’ requests.
Kevan Gosper is vice-chairman of the IOC Co-ordination Commission, charged with liaising with the Beijing Olympic organisers (BOCOG). He is also the IOC’s press commission chairman. He said this week he had urged a relaxation of the toughened visa requirements to BOCOG. He said he would be very disappointed if bona fide journalists were not allowed into China but noted: “At the end of the day, their issuance of visas, like our issuance of visas, is very much a national matter.”
Behind the scenes, the dialogue is more intense. Several months ago, Chinese leaders imposed a new level of political bureaucracy over BOCOG. That isn’t new – Sydney did a similar power shuffle in 2000 when SOCOG chairman Michael Knight shafted chief executive Sandy Hollway and elevated his Olympic Co-ordination Authority honcho David Richmond to the top job.
But the Chinese changes have brought a dramatic shift in the tone of the preparations. Where there was a willingness to bow to outside influences, or at least appear to listen, in a desire to present China in the best possible light, has devolved into a far different beast. Tibetan riots, fears of Falun Gong protests and tensions in Xinjiang, a separatist Muslim region, have raised the domestic temperature. Now the Chinese view is the Games must be protected at all costs, and that might mean upsetting some political foes and tightly controlling who is in the city for the Games.
Last week Norman Choy, a reporter from the Apple Daily , a well-known anti-Communist paper in Hong Kong, was refused entry into Beijing, even though he possessed Olympic accreditation. He was told he was turned back because of national security laws. “We’ve been hearing rumours that Beijing has been tightening restrictions on certain media and suspicious individuals … I was prepared to be followed or to have my credentials checked, but to have my travel document confiscated surprised me,” Choy said.
This week, China’ Communist Party senior leader, Li Changchun, promised: “China will provide good media services for journalists covering the Olympics,” adding that anyone unhappy could complain directly to the BOCOG president.
He said he wanted overseas journalists to “make full coverage of the Olympics and tell the world a true China”.
Funny, that is what the journalists want to do, too.