(Adds background, detail, BOCOG quotes)
By Nick Mulvenney
BEIJING, July 30 (Reuters) - International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials have cut a deal with China to allow the blocking of sensitive websites from media during the Beijing Games, press chief Kevan Gosper said on Wednesday.
Gosper, chairman of the IOC’s press commission, had previously said that internet access for the 21,500 media accredited for the Aug. 8-24 Games would be “open”.
“I ... now understand that some IOC officials negotiated with the Chinese that some sensitive sites would be blocked on the basis they were not considered Games related,” the Australian told Reuters on Wednesday.
China is committed to providing media with the same freedom to report on the Games as they enjoyed at previous Olympics and it loosened controls over foreigners reporting in the country in January 2007.
But attempts to use the internet at the main press centre to access the website of Amnesty International, which released a report on Monday slamming China for failing to honour its Olympic human rights pledges, continued to prove fruitless on Wednesday.
Other websites, most specifically those relating to the banned spiritual group Falun Gong, were also inaccessible to reporters.
“It has been my belief, and I have expressed it consistently, that the international media would enjoy free and open access to the internet at Games time for reporting the Olympic Games and that censorship would not be an issue,” Gosper said.
“I regret that it now appears BOCOG has announced that there will be limitations on website access during Games time and, while I understand that sensitive material not related to the Olympic Games continues to be a matter for the Chinese, I believe BOCOG and the IOC should have conveyed a clear message to the international media, in so far as this affects internet access, at an earlier stage.”
Beijing organisers (BOCOG) said censorship would not stop journalists doing their jobs in reporting the Games. “We are going to do our best to facilitate the foreign media to do their reporting work through the Internet,” BOCOG spokesman Sun Weide told a news conference.
“... I would remind you that Falun Gong is an evil fake religion which has been banned by the Chinese government.
“I said we would provide sufficient, convenient internet access for foreign journalists to report on the Olympics,” he added.
John Coates, the president of the Australian Olympic Committee, told an earlier news conference that he was “disappointed” that the internet was censored, saying freedom of the media and transparency were vital to the Olympic Charter.
Despite the new regulations, foreign media in China continue to complain of harassment by officials and Human Rights Watch released a report earlier this month saying China was not living up to its pledges.
Liu Binjie, the head of China’s Ministry of Press and Publications, told Xinhua on Wednesday that such criticisms defamed China “with stereotypes constructed from hearsay and prejudice in their mind, regardless of the reality”.
The minister also said new media regulations were being drawn up to replace those issued for the Olympics, which will expire in October.
“China’s open door to the foreign media will not close after the Games,” Liu Binjie said.
“We regard the May 12 earthquake and the Olympic Games press coverage as an ‘important test’ of the media operation system reforms and will explore building a more open and transparent media system after the Games.”
China drew wide praise for its openness to foreign media coverage of the Sichuan earthquake, which killed nearly 70,000 people.
That was a stark contrast to the aftermath of the March riots in Tibet when foreign media were banned from entering the Himalayan region except on carefully choreographed trips limited to a handful of reporters.
Additional reporting by Paul Radford and Liu Zhen, editing by Jon Bramley