SCMP Aug 8, 2006

Ease limits on foreign press, club says


Journalists' group wants Beijing to honour promise of free coverage at Olympics

The Foreign Correspondents Club of China has called on Beijing to honour its promise to reduce restrictions on foreign journalists, saying the widespread detention of journalists shows that the country is not prepared to host the Olympic press corps in 2008.

In a letter to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (Bocog) yesterday, the club said a survey had shown authorities 'frequently detain foreign reporters, and occasionally use violence against them and their sources'.

'China's controls on foreign media are not in keeping with China's commitment to the International Olympic Committee to allow free coverage, and are an affront to the Olympic spirit,' club president Melinda Liu said. 'We urge China to quickly adopt the practices of press freedom expected of Olympic hosts.'

She urged the government to abolish rules that made the reporting of sensitive social issues an offence, and which require foreign journalists to apply for permission before making reporting trips outside the cities in which they are based.

The club, which has 210 members from 21 countries, said the rules, particularly articles 14 and 15, were the basis for the detention of correspondents and harassment of their sources and assistants.

According to the survey, which was carried out last month, 72 incidents of harassment involving foreign journalists have occurred since 2004, when China was handed the Olympic torch.

Police detained foreign journalists on at least 38 occasions, mostly while covering stories related to social issues such as environmental protests, land disputes and the plight of Aids victims.

On 10 occasions, reporters and their sources suffered physical harassment, including 'clubbing, punching and strip searches'. In addition, there were 21 cases of notes and images being destroyed.

The report listed the case of Associated Press photographer Ng Han Guan, who was assaulted during the 2004 Asia Cup while taking a photograph of plain-clothes security personnel manhandling Agence France-Presse photographer Fred Brown.

Ng was kicked to the ground and received a large scalp wound that required hospital treatment. His camera was smashed. The report said that although Ng identified his assailant and lodged charges, no punishment occurred.

The club called on China to honour a 2001 promise by Wang Wei , secretary-general of the games bid committee, to give 'complete freedom to report when they come to China'.

'In trade, investment and many other areas, China has benefited from greater openness and the adoption of international standards,' the letter said. 'The same can be true in the area of media reform. But time is running out before the Olympics.'

When asked if he expected Beijing to respond positively to the letter, club board member Jonathan Watts responded: 'Why not?'

'China has always been determined to put on the best Olympics ever, but putting on a good Olympics is not just about concrete and steel. You also have to create a good environment,' he said. 'A more open media environment is a step towards creating the right atmosphere for a successful games.'

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Bocog did not respond to requests for a response to the letter. About 20,000 foreign journalists are expected to cover the Olympics in 2008.