September 8, 2007

China: Media Freedom Attacks Continue Despite Pledges

11 Months Ahead of Beijing Olympics, Journalist Harassment Ongoing

(New York, September 7, 2007) – The Chinese government continues to violate the rights of journalists in spite of assurances to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that the 2008 Beijing Olympics would foster improvements in human rights and of specific pledges of wider media freedoms, Human Rights Watch said today.

Just 11 months before the 2008 Beijing Games begin, journalists in China continue to face physical abuse and harassment from police and plainclothes thugs who appear to work at official behest.

“The continuing harassment and physical abuse of journalists in the countdown to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing raises serious questions about the sincerity of government pledges to greater media freedom,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The Chinese government seems to see a free media as an enemy rather than a watchdog of public safety and social stability.”

As part of its 2001 bid for the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese government expressly assured the IOC that it would loosen its long-held grip on the media during the Olympic Games. That commitment is consistent with the obligation of Olympic host cities to comply with Article 51 of the Olympic Charter, which stipulates that the IOC should take “all necessary steps in order to ensure the fullest coverage by the different media and the widest possible audience in the world for the Olympic Games.” Moreover, Article 35 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China specifically guarantees “freedom ... of the press.”

In late 2006, the Chinese government announced new freedoms for accredited foreign journalists as part of its IOC commitments. The temporary regulations, in effect from January 1, 2007 until October 17, 2008, allow foreign correspondents to freely conduct interviews with any consenting Chinese organization or citizen.

Despite those temporary rules, on August 24, police prevented a group of seven foreign journalists, including two camera crews and a radio journalist, who attempted to visit Yuan Weijing, the wife of jailed human rights defender Chen Guangcheng, prior to her scheduled flight to Manila to receive an international human rights award on her husband’s behalf. One of those journalists told Human Rights Watch that the police on duty outside Yuan’s Beijing residence forced the journalists to accompany them to the neighborhood police post, where they were subjected to a lengthy “registration” process in order to get access to the residence.

The authorities subsequently barred Yuan from leaving China and forced her to return to her native Shandong province. The Associated Press reported that a group of “government workers” abducted Yuan from a Beijing-bound bus on August 31 and forced her back to Shandong.

In another recent incident, Yixing court officials in Jiangsu province barred The New York Times and the South China Morning Post from entering the courtroom to cover the August 24 trial of environmental activist Wu Lihong, who was sentenced to three years in prison on extortion and fraud charges that observers have described as politically motivated. Officials gave no reason for restricting access, saying only that the proceedings were “an ordinary trial.” Reporters who waited outside the courthouse for the verdict were subject to harassment by plainclothes police, who demanded to know why they were there, what questions they wanted to ask, and what their equipment was for.

“Barring journalists from covering an ‘ordinary’ trial raises questions about the integrity of the legal proceedings,” said Richardson.

Human Rights Watch pointed out that the temporary regulations also do not extend to Chinese journalists or Chinese nationals who work as assistants or translators for foreign journalists the same freedoms they do to foreign journalists. As a result, Chinese journalists remain particularly vulnerable to retaliation from local authorities who do not want embarrassing issues covered.

In mid-August, five Chinese journalists, including a reporter from the government mouthpiece People’s Daily, were interviewing witnesses to the Fenghuang bridge collapse in central Hunan province. Plainclothes thugs interrupted the interviews and kicked and punched the journalists, who were then detained by the police.

The government is also tightening controls over domestic media content ahead of the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which begins on October 15. The congress, which is held only once every five years, is a period of heightened sensitivity for the government, as it is the forum where the next generation of the party’s leadership will be unveiled.

On August 19, the media authorities demonstrated their power to control the press by requiring that five of the country’s largest newspapers–the People’s Daily, Guangming Daily, Economic Daily, People’s Liberation Army Daily and the Beijing Daily – run near-identical front pages.

The Chinese government offered no explanation for the stage-managed front pages, which all led with an article on China’s leaders’ personal involvement in efforts to rescue miners in a flooded mine shaft and included photos of President Hu Jintao’s state visit to Kazakhstan.

On August 31, the government ordered domestic internet search engines, including Google China, China Yahoo, and, to remove all “illegal and unhealthy content” within a week without providing any criteria for making such judgments and without clarifying what penalties might result.

“Such vaguely worded content prohibitions are an obvious direct threat to all media, as they encourage self-censorship of news or postings which could embarrass the government ahead of the Party Congress,” said Richardson.

Those efforts have extended to the closure by government authorities of numerous internet data centers, which host thousands of servers. Unplugging these internet data centers to squelch “illegal” content ahead of the 17th Party Congress has affected thousands of web sites, forums, and blogging platforms in provinces including Guangdong, Henan, Sichuan, and the eastern coastal city of Shanghai.

“If the Chinese government is serious about combating corruption and easing social unrest, why is it stifling media and abusing journalists, especially when they are crucial in exposing precisely such threats?” Richardson said. “Such actions make a mockery of the Chinese government’s commitments to its own citizens and the IOC.”

No comments: