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FREEDOMS EXTENDED, BUT NOT FAR ENOUGH, SAY IFEX MEMBERS

IFEX members cautiously welcomed China's last-minute decision to allow foreign reporters greater freedom, but urged Beijing to extend the same rights to domestic journalists.

China announced on 17 October that the freedoms introduced for the Olympic Games for foreign reporters would be extended, giving them the right to interview Chinese citizens and travel where they wish without first getting government permission.

"This decision marks an important step forward in the battle for freedom of expression in China," said Human Rights Watch. "But the struggle will continue until all journalists - particularly Chinese journalists - have full freedom to report and exercise their rights under the Chinese constitution and international law."

The rules were first introduced on 1 January 2007 as part of China's Olympic media freedom commitments, but had been due to run out on 17 October.

Not that it was a trouble free period - according to figures compiled by the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC), the rules were widely violated in practice, with 336 cases of interference with foreign reporters documented, including surveillance, physical attacks, denial of access and harassment of sources.

Nor are the rules all-encompassing. Although foreign reporters would be allowed to travel without having to get authorisation, they would still need permission from local authorities to gain access to Tibet, where the Chinese cracked down on protests in March. According to the World Association of Newspapers (WAN), hotels are also obliged to report the arrival of a foreign journalist to police.

Domestic journalists, meanwhile, were never affected by the relaxation and remain burdened with strict reporting restrictions - a fact deplored by IFEX members. Chinese nationals are also still barred from working for foreign media organisations as reporters.

And, as three PEN Centres point out in a report entitled "Beyond the Olympics", there are now more writers in prison (44) than there were at the beginning of the year (40) - and China remains the biggest jailer of journalists in the world.

"The expiry of these rules should have been the occasion for the government to allow even greater freedom of movement and freedom to interview," Reporters Without Borders (RSF) told reporters. "We hoped that the end of these regulations would be an opportunity (for China) to think about things, to consult others, ask media organisations how things could be improved beyond freedom of movement and interview. But the only thing they were capable of doing was to extend these two freedoms."

Visit these links:
- Human Rights Watch: http://tinyurl.com/5hsedx
- International Federation of Journalists: http://tinyurl.com/56cggu
- PEN, "Beyond the Olympics": http://www.pen.org/beyondtheolympics
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=28987
- RSF in AFP: http://tinyurl.com/67wbps
- WAN: http://www.wan-press.org/china/news.php
- FCCC: http://www.fccchina.org/
(22 October 2008)

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