Monday, August 04, 2008

The Beijing Olympics and Media Censorship...

There has been a row brewing for the past several months between the Beijing Olympics and the international press. It boils down to this: In order to win their Olympic bid, Beijing made a commitment to providing "complete media freedom", which included unfettered internet access for reporters. But as the clock has ticked closer to the start of the games, Beijing has started to reneg on that promise.

It's a well-known matter of policy that the Chinese government censors large swaths of the internet. Sites like Amnesty International and CNN are blocked, as are more innocuous destinations like Wikipedia and YouTube. It is known as The Great Firewall of China, yet I can tell you from first-hand experience that the censorship is far more subtle than you'd imagine. When surfing the Web from an internet cafe, for example, and trying to reach Wikipedia, the user does not receive some frightening message like "this page is blocked and the authorities will be paying you a visit shortly". Rather the site does, in fact, come up about 20% of the time - leading you to believe that it's not censored at all. The other 80% of the time, when the site is inaccessible, no warning message appears - the loading of the site simply times out. As a result, the user typically just gets impatient and goes to a different site.

Sound familiar?

Despite this subtlety, the international press was promised to have such censorship controls removed during their Olympic stay. It was generally recognized as unrealistic to expect the Chinese government to remove those controls completely from all of Beijing. So instead, everyone figured that at least the major hotels and other hubs where foreign media congregated would be granted unrestricted internet freedom.

But that hasn't been the case, and the backlash has apparently led to Beijing backtracking on its policy.

The U-turn came as President Hu Jintao said his country would stand by the pledges it made in bidding for the games, in a rare interview with a select group of foreign reporters. "The Chinese government and the Chinese people have been working in real earnest to honour the commitments made to the international community," said Hu.

This comes with a caveat, of course (and a mighty big one, at that). Jintao "also warned critics against politicising the Olympics, saying it would not help to resolve contentious issues."

All of which results in an endless cat-and-mouse game in which Beijing will be trying to censor as many websites as it can get away with, and when the international media calls them out on specific cases, they will temporarily placate those pesky reporters.

But as this drama unfolds, perhaps the most disturbing development doesn't have to do with the authoritarian Chinese government at all. Reports by International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials themselves have revealed that some of their own members have apparently made deals under the table to let China block sensitive websites to the media, despite their repeated promises.

As abhorrent as it is, at least we expect the Chinese government to behave according to form. But for the IOC to strike such deals out of the public's eye in inexcusable.


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