By: Mark Fitzgerald
Back in 2001, when China was awarded the right to stage next year’s Summer Games, Wang Wei, executive vice president of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, assured foreign journalists that they would have complete freedom to do their work.
How’s that working out, six years later? Ask Dan Griffiths, a correspondent with the BBC World Service.
A couple of weeks ago, he took a ride to a village about three hours south of Beijing to check out reports of protests against the local authorities. He was there for just a few minute before the police swooped in.
“The questions come thick and fast. What am I doing? Where have I come from? Who is my contact in the village?” he reported on the BBC’s Web site.
“Over the course of the next few hours they will ask me this last question again and again.”
Griffiths was pushed into a black car that appeared seemingly out of nowhere — and taken to town hall. Police and municipal officials refused to give him their names while repeatedly asking what he was doing there. After a long period of interrogation, Griffith was driven out of town, and met by local representatives of China’s foreign ministry. They act as if it’s all been a huge mistake, and insist the journalist have dinner with the men who moments before had him effectively under arrest. In a coda to the incident that would not be out of place in one of John LeCarre’s Cold War-era spy novels, Griffiths and his taxi driver discover that while they were eating, someone tampered with the car, removing several bolts that hold the wheels to the chassis.
Forced to wait by the side of the road that day, Griffiths asked one of the officials, “Is this how you will treat journalists when China hosts the Olympics?”
“Oh, everything will be different then,” came the reply.
Griffiths’ experience is not unique, says the Paris-based press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF for its initials in French).
Just last week, two stringers for Agence France-Presse were detained for five hours when they tried to go to the same village, Shengyou, a symbol of rural unrest in China since 2005, when a gang employed by local Communist Party officials killed six people and injured scored others in a land dispute.
In August, reporters from The New York Times and South China Morning Post of Hong Kong were prevented from attending the trial of environmental activist Wu Lihong.
All this comes despite a new media law adopted in January that the central government said fulfills Wang Wei’s vow of press freedom for foreigners.
In fact, RSF says, in a poll of 163 foreign journalists based in China, conducted earlier this year by the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, fully 40% of correspondents reported some kind of interference in their work by authorities.
Since the first of the year, journalists have reported 157 such incidents to the club — including violence, threats, arrests, surveillance, and intimidation of sources.
This treatment does not bode well for the ability of the foreign press to work freely in when the Olympics open next September, RSF says.
“These are not unfortunate blunders,” the organization said in a statement. “They are the result of a clear lack of goodwill on the part of the police, who refuse to let reporters travel and investigate freely.”
Of course, if it’s this bad for foreign journalists, it is much worse for the brave Chinese who dare to report the truth. The Committee to Protect Journalists says China is imprisoning 28 journalists right now. RSF counts it at 35, with another 51 “cyberdissidents,” mostly bloggers who ignored the government’s call for “discipline” online.
What little international protest there’s been over this treatment of journalists has fallen on deaf ears. Beijing simply ignored President Bush’s pleas to release New York Times researcher Zhao Yan. Zhao was finally released last weekend after spending every hour of his three year sentence on ludicrous bribery charge in jail.
But why should Beijing worry about a protest from Bush, when the president so eagerly took up the invitation to attend the Games that was extended by these enemies of the press?
RSF probably has the right idea for getting Beijing’s attention. It’s asking the International Olympics Committee to insist that the authorities live up to the promises they made when China was given this chance to showcase its ascension once more as a global power.