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PRESS FREEDOM UNDER ATTACK AHEAD OF 2008 OLYMPICS

The Chinese government is backtracking on new rules that allow greater freedom to foreign journalists ahead of the Beijing Olympics, and is continuing to deny comparable freedoms to Chinese journalists, say Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, RSF).

"Arbitrary restrictions on press freedoms undermine the new regulations, and raise questions about the government's commitment to implement them in the first place," Human Rights Watch says.

The new freedoms are set out in the "Service Guide for Foreign Media," published on the website of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, http://en.beijing2008.cn. The document gives foreign reporters permission to cover the Olympics and its preparation, as well as "political, economic, social and cultural matters of China." "The freedom of foreign journalists in their news coverage will also be ensured," the guide promises. The regulations will cease to apply in October 2008, once the Beijing Games are over.

But several foreign journalists have been told there are still certain areas they cannot visit and subjects they cannot cover, says Human Rights Watch. In March, the military stopped BBC correspondent James Reynolds from reporting on the aftermath of a riot in Hunan province, telling him the new regulations were "only for Olympics-related stories." In at least four other instances this year, foreign correspondents have been stopped or detained in areas including villages of HIV-AIDS sufferers in Henan province and along China's border with North Korea. In May, the Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned two Western journalists warning them about their reporting on Tibet, reports RSF, calling their articles "false" and "unacceptable."

"If the government is trumpeting commitments to new reporting freedoms, but then taking those freedoms away through incremental regulations and arbitrary actions against individual journalists, then there hasn't really been any progress at all," says Human Rights Watch.

The temporary regulations intentionally exclude domestic journalists from enjoying the same freedoms, says Human Rights Watch. They don't apply to Chinese citizens who work for foreign media organisations in China, either - Chinese law does not recognise them as journalists. Domestic reporters are constrained by sweeping prohibitions against publishing material that "harms the honour or the interests of the nation." They will be further targeted after 1 July, when new rules that tighten the registration requirements of domestic print media take effect, in an apparent effort to crackdown on publications critical of the government.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), China already jails more journalists than any other country in the world, with more than 30 known cases of journalists currently imprisoned for their work.

RSF is one of nine members of a French collective of human rights organisations that launched an eight-point campaign last week to hold China to its promise that winning the Olympics bid would "help the growth of human rights."

The Collectif Chine Jeux Olympiques (JO) 2008 advocates for the suspension of all executions and death sentences, an end to government control of the media, and the release of all political prisoners, including Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist serving a 10-year prison sentence for revealing his government's orders to newspapers to censor their reporting of the Tiananmen Square massacre anniversary. On 4 June - the 18th anniversary of the massacre - Tao was awarded the 2007 Golden Pen of Freedom, the annual press freedom prize of the World Association of Newspapers (WAN).

To see a full list of Collectif Chine JO 2008's proposals and to sign a letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao calling for action, see: http://pekin2008.rsfblog.org

Visit these links:
- Human Rights Watch: http://tinyurl.com/29qdo8
- RSF on Western journalists in Tibet: http://tinyurl.com/24pxa9
- RSF on Collectif Chine JO 2008: http://tinyurl.com/23sre8
- CPJ on jailed journalists: http://tinyurl.com/yac6rw
- U.S. repoter Tim Johnson's blog on the frustrations correspondents face in China: http://washingtonbureau.typepad.com/china/
- WAN on Shi Tao: http://www.wan-press.org/article14359.html
(Photo courtesy of www.chinese-culture.net)

(5 June 2007)

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