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China limits Olympics journalists' web access

By Mure Dickie in Beijing
As published July 30, 2008, by Financial Times

China is to maintain its censorship of overseas websites even for journalists covering the Beijing Olympics, undermining earlier claims by the International Olympic Committee that international media would enjoy unfettered internet access during the Games.

Beijing routinely blocks access to thousands of overseas websites considered politically or socially suspect as part of a sprawling and secretive internet censorship system. However, the government had been widely expected to offer unfiltered internet access to the more than 20,000 journalists covering the Games, which open on August 8.

Jacques Rogge, IOC head, this month cited free internet access as an achievement of his "silent diplomacy" with Chinese officials.

"For the first time, foreign media will be able to report freely and publish their work freely in China. There will be no censorship on the internet," Mr Rogge said in an interview with AFP.

However, the Beijing Games organising committee (Bocog) insisted on Wednesday that it had never promised full freedom. "During Games–time we will provide sufficient and convenient internet access," Sun Weide, Bocog spokesman, said.

Bocog was already providing "sufficient" access, Mr Sun said, even though journalists have complained about blocks on overseas websites such as that of Amnesty International, a human rights group that this week issued a report on preparations for the Games.

The website of the Falun Gong sect, which is banned as an "evil cult" in China but operates unhindered elsewhere, and those of news organisations often linked to the group have also been blocked.

The sharp contrast between Beijing's refusal to suspend censorship controls and the IOC's previous assurances will cast a renewed spotlight on the international sports group's handling of preparations for the Games.

Kevan Gosper, chairman of the IOC's press commission, said he "regretted" news of the restricted access to the internet for foreign media, but suggested committee colleagues had dealt with the Chinese on the issue without his knowledge.

"I also now understand that some IOC officials negotiated with the Chinese that some sensitive sites would be blocked on the basis they were not considered Games–related," Mr Gosper told Reuters.

Other IOC media officials did not answer their mobile phones yesterday.

China's system of monitoring and restricting access to overseas internet content is widely known as the "Great Firewall". No explanation is given for decisions on which sites to block and government officials often even deny any policy of censorship.

However, the ruling Communist party has stressed the need to use the internet to "correctly guide" public opinion. The world wide web is "the battlefield forward position for the propagation of advanced socialist culture", Hu Jintao, president, said last month.

It was unclear yesterday whether the IOC might challenge Beijing's interpretation of "sufficient" internet access.

The committee did express concern about politicisation of the Olympics after Chinese officials cited the Games as inspiration for crushing supporters of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader. However, China's foreign ministry dismissed the complaint and the IOC appears to have since dropped the issue.

© Copyright 2008 The Financial Times Limited


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