NBC talks politics, human rights in Beijing Olympics opening ceremony coverage

Feb 4 (Reuters) - During the opening ceremony of the 2022 Beijing Olympics on Friday, hosts and experts on U.S. network NBC spoke in stark terms about China's alleged rights violations and Russia's conflict with Ukraine, directly addressing the geopolitical tensions underpinning the Games.

Coverage of the political backdrop comes as human rights groups and lawmakers have pressured NBC and broadcasters around the world to incorporate China's treatment of minority Muslim Uyghurs and crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong into the coverage of the Olympics.

NBC featured China experts who discussed the status of Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups in China's northwest region of Xinjiang, among other controversies facing the host country.

Those experts joined host Mike Tirico in an interview from the opening ceremony stadium. Savannah Guthrie co-hosted the broadcast from NBC Sports headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut.

The opening ceremony culminated with Uyghur cross-country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang lighting the Olympic cauldron, a "stunning decision," by the host nation as other countries have deemed China's treatment of the Uyghurs to be genocide, Guthrie said. read more

"It's so striking and so provocative by (Chinese president) Xi Jinping, and a real message," Guthrie said.

China denies allegations of genocide or other human rights abuses, and says its camps in Xinjiang provide vocational training and are needed to fight extremism.

Throughout the opening ceremony, NBC turned to experts to explain the gravity of Western governments' and human rights groups' allegations against China for its treatment of ethnic minorities.

"They allege that this is a massive program of social engineering aimed at suppressing Muslim Uyghur culture, language, tradition, identity," said Andy Browne, editorial director of the Bloomberg New Economy Forum and one of two China experts hired by NBC for its broadcast. "They allege a host of human rights abuses, forced labor, coercive birth control practices, indoctrination, and that this all adds up to a form of cultural genocide."

NBC also showed Russian President Vladimir Putin in the stands of the Beijing stadium as the commentators discussed the escalating conflict between Russia and Ukraine, which has led to fears of war in the region.

The United States and many Western nations staged a diplomatic boycott of the Games, declining to send political delegations to the opening. That stands in sharp contrast to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, which were attended by U.S. President George Bush.

Human rights advocates have shone a spotlight on NBC's coverage because the network's contract to air the Olympics is by far the world's largest. In 2014, Comcast-owned NBCUniversal paid $7.65 billion to extend its exclusive U.S. broadcasting rights for the Olympics through 2032.

Rights and press freedom groups have voiced concerns about the ability of NBC and journalists in general to freely report during the Olympics, citing Beijing's clampdowns.

In a presentation to reporters last month, NBC said its broadcast coverage of the Games would include the "geopolitical context" of China as the host nation. read more

Reporting by Helen Coster in New York, Sheila Dang in Dallas and Dawn Chmielewski in Los Angeles; editing by Mark Heinrich and Bill Berkrot

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