July 8, 2008

Tibet: The Forbidden Olympics

Sample ImageWith the Beijing Olympics less than one month away, Tibet remains out of reach for foreign journalists.

Below is an article published by The Wall Street Journal:

It was business as usual for the foreign correspondents covering the June 18 2008 Olympic torch relay through the city of Kashgar in China's Xinjiang. "Usual" meant being confined to roadsides patrolled by police guards and prohibited from interviewing bystanders while a foreign ministry minder insisted, "We are still giving you reporting freedom." Ditto for the Associated Press reporter whom police dragged from the scene of a June 3 2008 public protest by grieving parents in the Sichuan earthquake zone.

Welcome to just two of China's many media "forbidden zones" – geographical areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang, and sensitive issues like public [demonstrations] and dissidents. In these zones, officials, security forces and plainclothes thugs have free rein to use tactics ranging from obstruction to violence to foil foreign journalists from freely reporting.

Business was not supposed to have been "usual" this year. In 2001, the Chinese government solemnly promised the International Olympic Committee that if Beijing hosted the 2008 Games it would allow greater media freedom and let the world see China as it really is. The Chinese government's "fulfillment" of that pledge was a set of temporary regulations which on paper – but not in practice – granted greater freedom to foreign journalists. Local reporters, however, must still toe the official propaganda line or risk severe reprisals for bucking the system.

China's largest geographical forbidden zone is Tibet, where the government banned all access by foreign journalists in March 2008 following protests that turned violent in Lhasa. On June 26 2008, China's foreign ministry suddenly announced that Tibet was officially reopened to foreign media, but stressed that access will be granted "in line with previous procedure" – procedures that rarely resulted in permission to visit Tibet. Foreign journalists will likely remain unable to report on what prompted the Lhasa unrest or to ever verify the number of people killed, injured or arrested in the biggest government crackdown since the June 1989 Tiananmen Massacre.

In the immediate aftermath of the devastating May 12 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, the government was more accommodating toward foreign journalists, but the window has since closed as abruptly as it opened. The Foreign Correspondents Club of China warned in June 2008 of a deterioration in journalists' ability to report freely in Sichuan and has recorded at least nine incidents since June 2 2008 in which foreign journalists have been harassed, detained or manhandled while trying to report there. Those controls on foreign media raise the question whether we – or the people of Sichuan – will ever know how many people really died, and to what extent corruption may have compounded the earthquake's death toll.

A new Human Rights Watch report released today, "Shutting the Media Out of Tibet and Other 'Sensitive' Stories," highlights the media freedom threats facing the estimated 25,000 foreign journalists who will soon go to Beijing to cover the Olympics. The report details the failure by the Chinese government and the IOC to deliver on human-rights commitments, particularly those meant to ensure greater media freedom, which were key to Beijing being awarded the Games back in 2001.

It's not too late for the IOC and the national governments that will send athletes, journalists and spectators to the Games to insist that the Chinese government enforce its own temporary regulations for foreign journalists, make them permanent, and extend the same rights to Chinese journalists. The IOC and foreign governments can and should press Beijing to lift restrictions on foreign media access across the country and particularly to Tibet. They should also demand that the Chinese government investigate the anonymous death threats issued against at least 10 foreign correspondents and their families in response to their allegedly biased coverage of Tibet in March and April 2008.

The International Olympic Committee especially needs to learn from the lessons of the Chinese government's calibrated crackdown on freedom of expression and other human-rights abuses that are directly linked to the years-long preparations for the Beijing Games. The IOC should incorporate a permanent human-rights mechanism into the selection process for future Olympics host cities.

With backbone, integrity and a nod to the "fundamental ethical values" at the heart of the Olympic Charter, the IOC and world leaders headed to Beijing could help ensure that the Chinese government makes good on its Olympics-related media freedom pledge. Opening some of China's forbidden zones would be an Olympian change truly worth cheering.