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CAPSULE REPORT: Harassment of journalists, censorship still prevail despite official pledges ahead of 2008 Olympics

(HRW/IFEX) - The following is an abridged version of a 31 May 2007 Human Rights Watch press release:

China: Media Freedom Under Assault Ahead of 2008 Olympics
Harassment of Journalists, Censorship Still Prevalent Despite Official Pledges

(Hong Kong, May 31, 2007) - The Chinese government is backtracking on new rules that allow much greater freedom to foreign journalists, and is continuing to deny comparable freedoms to Chinese journalists, Human Rights Watch said today.

Moreover, there are indications that a further tightening of restrictions on the domestic media - already subject to systemic censorship and recurrent crackdowns - is looming, and journalists' sources are being targeted for reprisal by local officials.

"The Chinese government is already failing to deliver on its pledge to fully lift restrictions for foreign journalists ahead of the Beijing Games," said Sophie Richardson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "These arbitrary restrictions on press freedoms undermine the new regulations, and raise questions about the government's commitment to implement them in the first place."

The new freedoms are set out in the "Service Guide for Foreign Media," published on the Web site of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games ( http://en.beijing2008.cn ). That document states that "the Regulations on Reporting Activities by Foreign Journalists shall apply to the coverage of the Beijing Olympic Games and the preparation as well as political, economic, social and cultural matters of China by foreign journalists, in conformity with Chinese laws and regulations." The temporary regulations are in effect from January 1, 2007 until October 17, 2008.

But the new temporary regulations intentionally exclude domestic journalists from enjoying such freedoms. Chinese citizens who work for foreign media organizations in China are likewise excluded, as Chinese law expressly forbids their citizens from working as journalists for foreign publications or electronic media and relegates them instead to the roles of "assistant" or "researcher."

( . . . )

Restrictions on Geography, Topics for Foreign Journalists

Despite the official pledge to allow foreign journalists to report freely from across China, several foreign journalists report having been told that in fact there are certain areas or regions they still cannot visit and certain subjects they cannot cover.

( . . . )

Harassment of Chinese Researchers, Translators, and Assistants

Public Security Bureau and Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials also routinely subject domestic Chinese assistants, researchers and translators of foreign news bureaus to questioning and intimidation. "I was told directly that I am responsible for what my boss writes and that I must report to them when we plan to do 'sensitive' stories," a Chinese assistant to a foreign television network told Human Rights Watch. "All the Chinese assistants face these risks and we have no protection."

( . . . )

Retaliation Against Foreign Journalists' Sources

Intimidation and retaliation against foreign journalists' sources and interviewees is still prevalent. Fu Xiancai, an outspoken advocate for villagers displaced for the Three Gorges Dam, was beaten by an unknown assailant on June 8, 2006, after local police questioned him about his interview with German television station ARD. Security officers in Chongqing municipality (southwest China) threatened a local environmentalist assisting a European journalist with a story on toxic pollution, warning that the activist might face physical danger if he returned to the area.

( . . . )

Chinese Journalists' Concerns About Upcoming Regulations

Human Rights Watch is concerned that the Chinese government will tighten its existing stranglehold on local journalists to ensure overall control of information disseminated by state media in the run-up to the Beijing Olympic Games.

Chinese journalists have expressed fears that rules due to be issued on July 1 from the General Administration for Press and Publications that will tighten the registration requirements of domestic print media in China indicate a looming crackdown on publications that at times challenge the government line. Several Chinese journalists have privately told Human Rights Watch that they anticipate the new regulations will strengthen the government's ability to shut down "offensive" publications affiliated with larger state-owned media, but which lack licenses and registration. Publications that have gained large readerships for taking courageous stances in reporting cases of corruption and sensitive subjects are expected to be particularly vulnerable to the new regulations ahead of preparations for the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October.

( . . . )

"China's long-planned 2008 Beijing Olympics 'coming-out party' can easily become a public relations disaster if the government persists in failing to honor its obligations to media freedom," said Richardson.

For the full text of this release, see: http://www.hrw.org/english/docs/2007/05/31/china16029.htm

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