BEIJING: The Beijing Olympics were plunged into another controversy on Wednesday as China backtracked on Internet freedoms for the thousands of foreign reporters covering the Games.
China’s decision to reverse a pledge on allowing unfettered web access proved an embarrassment for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which had repeatedly said foreign press would not face any Internet curbs in Beijing.
It was also the latest in a long line of issues to have tarnished the run-up to the Olympics, which start on August 8, following controversies over pollution, human rights and terrorism threats.
Beijing Olympic organising committee spokesman Sun Weide triggered the latest public relations flare-up when he confirmed foreign reporters would not have access to some sites deemed sensitive by China’s communist rulers.
“During the Olympic Games we will provide sufficient access to the Internet for reporters,” Sun said.
However “sufficient access” falls short of the complete Internet freedoms for foreign reporters that China had promised in the run-up to the Games.
Sun specified sites linked to the Falungong spiritual movement, which is outlawed in China, as ones that would remain censored for the foreign press at Olympic venues.
He did not identify any others but reporters trying to surf the Internet at the main press centre for the Games on Wednesday found a wide array of sites deemed sensitive by China’s rulers to be out-of-bounds.
These included sites belonging to Tibet’s government-in-exile and Amnesty International, as well as those that had information on the 1989 Tiananmen massacre in which the military used deadly force to crush democracy protests.
The head of the IOC’s press commission, Kevan Gosper, told AFP on Wednesday that he would take the matter up with Chinese officials.
“I will speak with the Chinese authorities to advise them of the restraints and to see what their reaction is,” he said.
Australian Olympic team chief John Coates, who is also an IOC member, expressed frustration with China’s Internet about-face, pointing out that the Chinese authorities had gone back on one of their “key” Olympic promises.
“It certainly is disappointing… I think it’s a matter that the IOC will take seriously,” Coates told reporters.
In an exclusive interview with AFP two weeks ago, IOC president Jacques Rogge insisted there would be no censorship of the Internet.
“For the first time, foreign media will be able to report freely and publish their work freely in China,” he said.
“There will be no censorship on the Internet.”
The IOC late Wednesday denied knowing in advance of China’s plans to restrict the Internet for the 20,000 reporters covering the Games and said it was pushing for curbs to be lifted.
IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies had said earlier that the IOC had been made aware of China’s plans to censor the Internet in previous talks with the Beijing Olympic organising committee.
However, she later clarified her statement to say that the organising committee, when referring to Internet restrictions, had spoken only of pornographic sites and sites sensitive for national security reasons.
“It would be incorrect to say that we knew in advance that China was to restrict certain sites and we are pushing for those restrictions to be blocked,” Davies said.
“They were talking about restrictions that are similar to those that exist in other countries.”
Gosper on Wednesday told the South China Morning Post that the IOC knew some sites would be blocked.
“(Recently) I have also been advised that some of the IOC officials had negotiated with the Chinese that some sensitive sites would be blocked,” the Hong Kong-based newspaper quoted Gosper as saying in an exclusive interview.
“If you have been misled by what I have told you about there being free Internet access during the Games, then I apologise.”
Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based press freedom group, said it was surprised the IOC had kowtowed so easily to China’s leadership over web access.
“When China applied to host the Games they promised total press freedom and that must include Internet access,” said Vincent Brossel, the group’s Asia director.
“What a total humiliation this is for the (IOC president) Jacques Rogge. How can the IOC be so weak and feeble?” – AFP/de
Channel News Asia