By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING, Aug 7 (Reuters) - China is harassing, intimidating and detaining foreign journalists who report on subjects deemed sensitive, violating its own media freedom pledges a year ahead of the Beijing Olympics, a rights group said on Tuesday.
Access to officials and previously off-limits areas in some cases had eased, but news stories on Tibet, AIDS and demonstrations have often earned reporters detention and Foreign Ministry criticism, Human Rights Watch said in a new report.
China now theoretically allows foreign reporters to travel and report more freely across most of the country in the run-up to next August’s Games, but the relaxed rules will expire on Oct. 17, 2008.
Foreign journalists had required government permission to report outside their home base — usually Beijing or Shanghai — but under the new rules they need only the agreement of the person they are interviewing.
"The Chinese government’s attempts to intimidate and detain foreign journalists for simply doing their jobs shows contempt for Olympic ideas of fair play," Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
"The ongoing harassment and detention of journalists make Beijing’s Olympic pledge on media freedoms seem more like a public relations ploy than a sincere policy initiative," he added.
China is expected to host some 20,000 Olympic-accredited and 10,000 non-accredited media during next year’s Games.
Jiang Xiaoyu, executive vice president of the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, told a news conference on Monday that the eased rules had been welcomed by reporters, and that he welcomed dissenting voices.
"The Beijing Organising Committee welcomes reporters from around the world to objectively, fairly and comprehensively report on the Olympic preparation work," Jiang said.
"We welcome even more constructive criticism on faults and problems," he added. "But we absolutely oppose the politicisation of the Olympics, as this does not accord with the Olympic spirit."
The report — called "You Will Be Harassed and Detained: Media Freedoms Under Assault in China Ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games" — comes a week after the Foreign Correspondents Club of China unveiled a survey of its members that reported similar problems.
China’s own tightly controlled domestic media is not covered by the new rules.
"Beijing’s failure to ensure equal freedoms for Chinese journalists not only violates freedom of expression, but is a form of invidious discrimination against its own nationals, particularly as China’s own constitution guarantees freedom of the press," Adams said.
Restrictions on travel to Tibet and the far western region of Xinjiang, where restless minority peoples chafe under Beijing’s yoke, remain in place too.
"The Chinese government still has one year to get this right, but only if officials choose meaningful action over empty rhetoric," said Adams.
"The world will be watching to see whether Beijing will live up to its commitments to the International Olympic Committee."