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Censorship and protests as Olympics open

The Beijing Olympics opened on 8 August 2008 amid a swirl of controversy about Chinese censorship of human rights websites and activists - and continuing protests by free expression advocates around the world.

Despite some relaxation of controls, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported on 12 August that its website, www.cpj.org, was blocked in the main Olympic press centre and at least one other press venue. Earlier international reports said certain previously censored sites, such as of Amnesty International, became available after widespread protests.

ARTICLE 19 condemned Olympics organisers as well as the Chinese government. Not only have promises to improve human rights standards been broken, said executive director Agnès Callamard, the situation deteriorated in the run-up to the games. Human rights organisations have documented "what amounts to an acceleration in human rights violations," including censorship and other attacks on media freedom, and crackdown against human rights defenders and Tibetan protesters.

"To many of us within the human rights community, it seems that human rights, including freedom of expression, have been sacrificed on the altar of corporate sponsorship and market share; a sacrifice presided over by the International Olympic Committee (IOC)." While the Chinese government is directly responsible for its broken promises, "the IOC's quiet, callous if not cynical disregard for human rights" should also be highlighted.

The benefit of speaking out was demonstrated just before the games, ARTICLE 19 argued, when dissenting IOC voices and "the increasing public uproar" forced China to ease censorship of foreign journalists' access to English-language Internet sites.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and CPJ report that on 13 August, security officers roughed up John Ray, a British journalist working for Independent Television News (ITN), after he filmed protestors holding a "Free Tibet" banner close to the Bird Nest Olympic venue in Beijing.

Many Chinese activists remain in jail or under house arrest to keep them from speaking up about human rights violations surrounding the Olympics, reports Human Rights Watch.

In other news, two Japanese journalists covering the aftermath of a 4 August attack on border police in the western province of Kashgar were detained, beaten, and harassed, CPJ reported. IFJ says other journalists reported that police confiscated or forced journalists to delete film footage and photographs.

CAMPAIGNS:

Numerous free expression groups monitored Beijing, campaigned for free expression, and facilitated worldwide protests.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) clandestinely broadcast "Radio Without Borders" in Beijing hours before the opening ceremony on 8 August. In a 20-minute English, French and Mandarin programme heard on FM radios, RSF secretary-general Robert Ménard and Chinese human rights activists called on the Chinese government to respect free speech.

- RSF also sponsored a virtual demonstration "outside Beijing's Olympic Stadium" at http://tinyurl.com/5kfx4q

- ARTICLE 19 campaign: http://tinyurl.com/5peqp7

- PEN American Center's campaign for the release of 45 imprisoned writers and journalists culminated in New York on 7 August in "Bringing Down the Great Firewall of China: Silenced Writers Speak," co-sponsored by the Independent Chinese PEN Center and PEN Canada. See: http://www.pen.org/page.php/prmID/1527

- Olympic Watch publicly appealed to Olympic athletes to express themselves in support of people whose rights are being violated by the Chinese government. A statement endorsing the appeal rejects the notion that peaceful promotion of human rights constitutes political propaganda prohibited by the Olympic Charter. See: http://olympicwatch.org/news.php?id=124

- The Dalai Lama began the Olympic Handshake - a powerful, unambiguous message of peace, friendship and dialogue - that is travelling toward Beijing. See: http://tinyurl.com/69s8f4

- IFEX-supported campaigns: http://tinyurl.com/6q6vmb

RESOURCES:

- Human Rights Watch report "China: Olympics Harm Key Human Rights -
Chinese Government, IOC Wasted Historic Opportunity for Reform": http://tinyurl.com/59tca5
- RSF's Olympics blog: http://olympicgames.rsfblog.org/

- CPJ's blog covers press freedom concerns at the Olympics: http://www.cpj.org/blog/. CPJ also has a hotline at +852 6717 0591 for journalists facing censorship, threats, attacks, or other press freedom abuses.

- Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) released its first "China Human Rights Yearbook" this month. See: http://tinyurl.com/5qk3hv

- CHRD also published an "Alternative Guide to the Beijing Olympics", available in English at: http://tinyurl.com/6ju573. Part II, "How China Censors the Internet", is at http://tinyurl.com/666tj4

- In Canada, the Montreal-based International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development (Rights & Democracy) launched an online Olympic Journal on human rights at http://www.olympicjournal.ca/

- IFEX alerts: http://tinyurl.com/6fg5p3

Photo: Olympic protest (courtesy RSF)

(13 August 2008)

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