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CAPSULE REPORT: Limited gains for media freedom during Olympics threatened if special regulations lapse, says IFJ

(IFJ/IFEX) - The following is a 13 October 2008 IFJ capsule report:

IFJ Urges China to Extend Media Freedom as Deadline Looms

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) called on China's Government to maintain relaxed restrictions on the media beyond the October 17 deadline set for expiration of its temporary Olympic Reporting Regulations for foreign journalists as well as those from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

"If China allows the special reporting regulations to lapse, it will send a message that the limited gains for media freedom made during the Olympic Games are being unwound," IFJ Asia-Pacific said.

"A free media is impossible while China continues to fetter local and foreign journalists with heavy-handed interference and to detain journalists who dare to report critically."

The special regulations were introduced ahead of the Beijing Olympics. They came into force on January 1, 2007, and allow greater freedoms for journalists to interview subjects and to carry out their work. The regulations have allowed limited improvements in media freedom in China, even though they have been widely breached by government and security officials.

Since the regulations have been in force, the IFJ has noted small improvements in media freedom in China. These include:

a.. As per the regulations, greater freedom for journalists to interview citizens with consent, and greater freedom of movement for journalists around China;
b.. An increased number of government press conferences to disseminate information to the public, including after major incidents;
c.. Minor roll-back of some controls on internet access and postings on websites.

Many organisations noted that for the first 10 days after the earthquake in Sichuan province in May 2008, local and foreign journalists were allowed relatively free rein to travel and report on the disaster. Only after the scale of the devastation and public distrust of authorities' preparations and handling of the crisis began to emerge did the state propaganda apparatus crack down on the media.

In July, the IFJ reported that Liu Binjie, Director of China's General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP) which regulates print publishing, said that the freedom of the press promised in the special regulations was not a "short term policy" and would continue after the Olympics.

However, breaches of media freedom and of the regulations have been widespread and serious. The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (FCCC) has documented more than 336 cases of interference in media reporting since the regulations came into force.

During the Olympics, journalists were regularly inhibited by local officials who were unaware of the regulations or unwilling to allow such a free media environment on their territory.

An international outcry ensued when it emerged that China was also blocking or limiting internet access from press centres set up for international journalists covering the Games. Security officials physically assaulted several reporters in Beijing, including British and Hong Kong journalists reporting on protests and scuffles around Olympic venues.

In early August, three Japanese journalists in Xinjiang were detained and beaten, while others had materials confiscated, while they reported on the aftermath of a bomb attack which killed a contingent of police officers.

The IFJ also reported on August 10 that plain-clothes security officials were taking photographs of journalists at work in Beijing.

China has also continued to punish and jail local journalists, writers and bloggers for attempting to do their jobs. On April 3, online journalist and blogger Hu Jia was sentenced to three and a half years' jail and one year's denial of political rights on charges of "inciting subversion of state power" for articles and interviews critical of China's Government's record on human rights.

Other journalists and writers detained in 2008 include Chen Daojun, for investigative articles raising concerns about chemical plants in Pengzhou, Sichuan; Sun Lin, for articles on civil rights violations in Nanjing; Zhou Yuanzhi, a freelance writer and social commentator, detained in Zhongxiang City, Hubei, in May; Qi Chonghuai and He Yanjie, journalists working for China Legal News, detained in Shandong in May; and Du Daobin, dissident writer and former editor of Human Rights Poetry, detained in Yingcheng, Hubei, in July.

China's Central Propaganda Department continues to issue regular directives to shape the direction of news coverage, to restrict reporting on "sensitive" topics, and to alert the state security apparatus to breaches.

Controls intensified during the uprising in Tibet in March. During the Olympic Games, a leaked directive revealed that journalists were ordered not to mention Tibet, not to cover any protests including those in the officially designated "protest parks", not to report on food safety issues including carcinogens in water, and only to report the "official line" on any controversies arising during the Games. Some blogs and websites were ordered permanently closed.

In September, the IFJ reported that the Department had allegedly deleted articles relating to the nationwide milk powder poisoning scandal from websites. It insisted on pre-approving articles about the scandal before they were published, and ordered journalists to leave Shijiazhuang, Hebei, where milk products company Sanlu, considered responsible for the crisis, is based.

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which China has signed but not ratified, enshrines the right to freedom of expression. This right is echoed in Article 35 of China's Constitution.

The IFJ calls on China's Government to extend the special regulations as a baseline for future reform.

The IFJ represents over 600,000 journalists in 122 countries worldwide.

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