WASHINGTON, D.C.—As the world eagerly anticipates 2008 Olympics in less than a year, it is well to keep in mind that more than athletic contests are at stake. Some 20,000 to 30,000 foreign journalists and technicians will descend in August 2008 to China to work in an environment that is like nothing they are accustomed to.
Long-time journalist, Bob Dietz, is pleased that people are gradually coming to see the link between China's hosting the Olympics and its pernicious policies towards journalists—foreign and domestic. As the Asian Coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), it's his job to respond to attacks on his profession in China. Founded in 1981, the CPJ documents hundreds of cases every year and advocates for a free press.
"As of this morning, with less than a year to go before the 2008 Olympic Games, China is holding at least 29 reporters and editors behind bars because of their work… Most are being held on vague security-related charges such as revealing state secrets or inciting subversion of state power," said Dietz.
Dietz was invited to speak at a special conference organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Oct 11, on "China's Olympian Challenge: Can Beijing Deliver on its Promises?"
29 reporters jailed is down from 31 last year. Still, China leads the world in the number of jailed journalists since 1999, according to Dietz.
"We think it is realistic to call on the [regime] of China to release the 29 journalists in prison for their work by October 2008," said Dietz, who noted that six of whom are due to be released sometime before the Games begin, preferably released by January 1st of the Olympic year.
Dietz also said that pressure should be brought on the International Olympic Committee (IOC), who awarded the Games to Beijing in 2001 with the understanding that China would allow full media access to all accredited journalists, without distinguishing between foreign and Chinese reporters.
"We will give the media complete freedom to report when they come to China," said the secretary-general of the Beijing bid committee at the time China was awarded the Games, according to a 2007 CPJ report, Falling Short: As the 2008 Olympics Approach, China Falters on Press Freedom. Dietz says the IOC needs to be pressured to enforce this promise from China, and secure the release of the 29 journalists.
Finally, Dietz said the Games' corporate sponsors should be pressured to fight for the release of the incarcerated journalists. He listed these as: Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola, Atos Origin, General Electric, Kodak, Lenovo, Namulife, McDonalds, Omega, Panasonic, Samsung, and Visa.
China Targets the Internet
In recent weeks as a run-up to the opening of the 17th Communist Party Congress on Oct 15th, public security officials have accelerated efforts to monitor and shut down online news and discussion forums, according to Dietz. More than half of the jailed journalists are as a result of Internet activities, noted Dietz.
These online activities deemed criminal include unauthorized posting of international and domestic news, reporting on crime and public protests, writing articles on crime and unemployment that were critical of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), editorials critical of the CCP's control of the media, according to "Falling Short."
"In an unprecedented move, public security officers in various regions have ordered entire Internet Data Centers (IDCs) to close. IDCs physically house servers, often several at a time, which in turn host hundreds and sometimes thousands of web sites each," said Dietz. If IDCs host a single website that the regime regards offensive, they are being shut down, according to information that CPJ has from numerous sources inside China. For example, Waigaoqiao is one of China's largest IDCs based in Shanghai, and "was ordered to close on September 3, effectively shutting 30 servers at once, according to numerous reports…," says CPJ.
For the regime to adopt the extreme measures of shutting down entire IDCs, indicates that, even with its daily oversight of the Internet, the censors are unable to keep up with the tremendous information flow, said Dietz. The regime's Public Security Bureau is ordering the IDCs to close down all interactive functions on their websites, such as Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), blogs, and comment sections, until after the Party Congress concludes, says the CPJ website. This type of pressure typically results in extreme self-censorship to avoid criminal liability.
Instances of Chinese Reporters in Jail
The 29 imprisoned journalists in China mentioned by Dietz are described in the Appendix III, Falling Short. Here are some of them:
• Li Changqing, deputy director of the Fuzhou Daily, was jailed in 2005. His crime: reporting accurately on the spread if dengue fever in Fujian. Li reported at least 100 cases in 2005 which did not tally with the official 20 cases. His sentence ends in Feb 2008.
• Shi Tao, editorial director at a Changsha-based newspaper, "Contemporary Business News," was arrested in Nov 2004 for giving "state secrets to foreigners." His crime: providing through his Yahoo account to friends in the U.S. the instructions from the local propaganda department on how the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre should be covered. He also provided the instructions on what to say about the banned religious practice of Falun Gong. He was sentenced for 10 years. He wouldn't have been caught without the aid of Yahoo! who tracked him down.
• Zhang Jianhong, author, screenwriter, reporter and founder of a popular news and literary website, is serving a 6-year sentence since Sep 2006, for "slandering the government and China's social system." His crime: calling for political reform in China, reporting on allegations that the regime illegally procured organs from living prisoners, and contributing to overseas websites ( Boxun News, Minzhu Luntan, Epoch Times ). Zhang had served one and half years in 1989 in one of China's notorious slave labor camps for supporting the Tiananmen pro-democracy protesters.
• Chen Renjie and Lin Youping have been imprisoned for 24 years, which makes them the world's longest serving journalists, according to CPJ research. Their crime: writing and publishing 300 copies of a pamphlet entitled "Freedom Report." A third journalist involved, Chen Biling, was executed.
Pushing the Limits
The intimidation and arrests of foreign journalists is appalling, but at least they have the concern and aid from their papers like the New York Times and the U.S. government.
But what about domestic journalists who face "guidelines" on what can be printed, and threats of demotion and reassignments? They cannot roam the country and ask questions like their foreign counterparts. They work in an environment where they know they are being watched, and for the editors, tally sheets are being kept of their "errors." Directives from the Ministry of Public Security come in regularly, without letup, and are quite specific.
"[Yet], many still push the limits of the restrictions, trying to break news stories before the censors can weigh in," said Dietz admiringly.
The domestic Chinese journalists, however, worry what will happen to them if they take advantage of the freedoms that might open up during the Games, said Dietz. "What will happen to them once the spotlight has moved on from the Games, and foreign media have packed up and gone home?" asked Dietz.