BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s massive Olympic security drive is undermining media freedoms promised for the Games, Beijing-based journalists say, and risks spoiling a chance for the country to highlight its culture and economic achievements.
Recently security officials burst into a government-approved live broadcast, banned a TV crew from an Olympic test event they were authorized to attend, and have been blocking one firm from filming in an ordinary apartment outside the security cordon.
Some journalists now fear they may have to scale back Olympic reporting plans and abandon even positive, non-political pieces.
“With a month to go we’ve seen a tightening of control and an overriding emphasis on security, bordering on paranoia, that could take away much of what should have been the fun of the Games,” said Jonathan Watts, President of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China.
“It seems that directives from above on media freedom are not implemented by officials below, who have not really changed a mindset that for decades was focused on obstructing journalists.”
China has pledged to guarantee the same freedom that media have enjoyed at previous Games, but many correspondents feel a government used to tight domestic control is reneging on that promise as it seeks to ensure a “perfect” Olympics.
Campaign group Human Rights Watch warned this month that China was breaking its word and also criticized the International Olympic Committee for not doing more to ensure Beijing lived up to its media and human rights pledges.
With the heir apparent to China’s top job, Vice-President Xi Jinping, in charge of the Games and pushing security as a top priority, there may be political concerns behind the crackdown.
Although most harassment and obstruction is from low level officials, journalists affected say more powerful people are unable or unwilling to intervene.
“Mostly what it boils down to, I think, is fear. No one wants their boss saying ‘how could you let us lose face during the event of the decade’”, said one producer at a big international broadcaster now considering cuts to its reporting plans.
Television journalists who want to broadcast in real time during the Games face probably the toughest challenges, because of fears they could be interrupted by protesters.
Live reports from Tiananmen Square, sensitive because of lingering memories of a bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, are off-limits to all except firms that shelled out billions of dollars to broadcast the main sporting events.
“It was not a surprise to me when we were told we could not do live (broadcasts) from Tiananmen, but is fairly shocking because it is an iconic venue,” said one foreign producer.
“The last thing they want is some guy with a banner standing up behind a correspondent live from Tiananmen.”
China is under fire from foreign campaigners over conditions in the Tibet region where there were deadly riots in March, and investment in countries including Sudan and Myanmar that have been criticized in the West for human rights abuses.
The banned Falun Gong spiritual group has also previously staged ambitious publicity stunts to protest being outlawed, and many Chinese have grievances they want to air.
But broadcasters argue that the government’s fears about small protests on issues that are already familiar to audiences in the West are blinding it to the risk of throwing away what should be a major publicity coup.
“This is your chance to get 95 percent positive cover because Western audience attention spans are pretty short,” said one expert working for international broadcasters, who also declined to be named for fear his employers would be penalized.
“No one remembers who Falun Gong are, no one wants to hear about Tibet months after the riots. They want to see the Great Wall and think about going on holiday there next year.”
(Editing by Ken Wills)