BEIJING, July 31 (Reuters) - The media should have been told they would not have total Internet freedom before arriving for the Beijing Olympics, a senior IOC official said on Thursday, as rights groups piled criticism on both the IOC and host China.
As the row over censorship continued to rumble, International Olympic Committee (IOC) press chief Kevan Gosper told Reuters that both he and the international media had been taken by surprise that some sensitive websites had been blocked.
“It’s learning of it at almost the last minute that I think is destabilising the international media and certainly embarrassing for me, as up till 48 hours ago I was insisting it would be free and uncensored Internet access,” Gosper said.
Gosper said the local organisers BOCOG’s failure to inform media beforehand that this would not happen was not good enough.
“We’ve noticed that the words being used by BOCOG have changed in recent months from ‘uncensored’ to what is more like ‘convenient and timely’, or ‘convenient and available’. These are quite different words,” he added.
“Nevertheless, no one has come out publicly and said on behalf of BOCOG or the IOC ‘sorry, but there are certain Internet websites which are blocked’,” Gosper said.
“It’s having to find out and get the big surprise by an announcement by BOCOG at a press conference. I think they could have done better.”
BOCOG is responsible for the direct running of the Beijing Games under the auspices of the IOC, which sets general Olympics policy and strategy among other functions. The organising committee of an Olympics would generally work hand-in-hand with the IOC.
Rights watchdog Amnesty International, whose website is among those barred in China, condemned Internet restrictions during the Games as “compromising fundamental human rights and betraying the Olympic values”.
“This blatant media censorship adds one more broken promise that undermines the claim that the Games would help improve human rights in China,” Amnesty East Asia researcher Mark Allison said in a statement.
BOCOG spokesman Sun Weide said censorship would not prevent journalists from reporting on the Games, though he acknowledged there would be no access to some websites, such as those of the Falun Gong, which he described as “an evil fake religion that has been banned by the Chinese government”.
BOCOG consistently assured journalists attending press briefings ahead of the Games that they would have normal access to the Internet.
Organisers have also become involved in another media spat, over a South Korean television station’s broadcast of a dress rehearsal for the Olympics opening ceremony, traditionally kept under wraps by Games organisers, that has infuriated Chinese Internet users.
But the network said on Thursday it had taken the footage legitimately.
The broadcast is certain to irk Games organisers who had made performers sign confidentiality agreements not to divulge details of the Aug. 8 ceremony, directed by Oscar-nominated director Zhang Yimou.
“We went, and nobody stopped us. So we just shot,” a staff reporter at the private SBS network sports desk said in Seoul.
The network, one of three official rights holders for the Games from South Korea, aired just over a minute of video of next week’s ceremony rehearsal, including scenes depicting the past and future of Chinese culture and the unrolling of a huge scroll from which rises a carpet-like object.
SBS did not show the lighting of the Olympic torch at the National Stadium where the rehearsal was taking place, but it reported that a golden phoenix was expected to swoop down into the stadium, dubbed the Bird’s Nest, for the climactic event.
Sun said he was “disappointed” by SBS’s move.
“Let’s wait for the wonderful performances when the Games open on Aug. 8.”
Chinese Internet users accused the channel of effectively breaking state secrecy laws by showing the footage.
Worries over pollution remained too.
China has announced a slew of emergency measures in and around Beijing in case air pollution remains poor during the Olympics, including taking more cars off the roads and slashing production at more than 220 factories.
The radical plan would be carried out if air quality was forecast to be short of acceptable standards for the upcoming 48 hours due to “extremely unfavourable weather conditions”, the Ministry of Environmental Protection said.
A sultry haze has shrouded Beijing for much of the last week but officials have sought to ease worries, blaming it on an unusually long bout of hot, humid weather and say the combination is unlikely to be repeated during the Games.
The city’s chronic pollution, a source of respiratory illness, has been one of the biggest worries for Games organisers, who have had to deflect international criticism over air quality as they struggle to contain the environmental effects of China’s breakneck economic growth.
The government has already cleared about half the capital’s 3.3 million cars from its streets -- by restricting vehicles with odd or even licence plate numbers on alternate days -- and shut factories dozens of miles away.
But according to the latest plan, even more Beijingers could soon be forced to use public transport.
In addition to the odd-and-even number system, cars whose plate's last digit matches the last number of the date would be banned under the contingency plan, the Ministry said in a statement on its website (www.sepa.gov.cn). (Additional reporting by Beijing and Seoul bureaux; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Ken Wills)