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One year after start of games, Olympic flame extinguished for good

One year after start of games, Olympic flame extinguished for good

Published on Friday 7 August 2009.
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A year after the Beijing Olympics began on 8 August 2008, Reporters Without Borders regrets that the limited progress China made in free expression has largely evaporated. Only foreign journalists continue to benefit from measures that were adopted for the Olympic Games. Online censorship and repression of free speech activists have been stepped up in the past year.

“The new openness touted by the organisers of the Beijing Olympics and the International Olympic Committee was just an illusion,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The dozens of petition organisers and human rights activists who were jailed for speaking out before and during the games have been joined in prison by lawyers, bloggers and intellectuals who had hoped the Olympic promises would be kept. Their disappointment matches the cynicism displayed by the authorities during the games.”

Reporters Without Borders calls for the release of all the Chinese citizens who are being held for speaking out or demanding their rights during the Beijing Olympic Games. See the petition:

The colossal sums being spent on disseminating the Communist Party of China’s official view suggest that the authorities have learned the lesson from the protests that accompanied the games. But the party’s media control apparatus, the Propaganda Department, does not seem to have learned the lesson from its disastrous decision to cover up the tainted baby formula scandal because of the games. Coverage of public health and general interest issues is still being censored.

Olympic prisoners

Dozens of dissidents and ordinary citizens are still in prison for expressing their view of the Olympic Games or criticising the government at a time when international attention was focussed on Beijing. The most famous of these detainees is human rights activist Hu Jia, who is serving a 3½-year sentence in Beijing.

Yang Chunlin, the leading initiator of the “We want human rights not Olympic Games” campaign, is being mistreated in prison. An intermediate court in the northeastern city of Jiamusi sentenced him on 24 March 2008 to five years in prison followed by two years without civic rights on a charge of “inciting subversion of state authority.”

Human rights activist Zheng Mingfang has fared little better. She was sent to a camp for reeducation through work in April 2008 for a two-year period because she published an open letter to the authorities before the Olympic Games. It was criticism of the games that also led to pro-democracy activist Zhang Wenhe being forcibly confined to a psychiatric hospital.

A Guangxi woman, Huang Liuhong, and her two sisters have spent nearly a year in detention without trial. They went to Beijing during the September 2008 Paralympics to protest property seizure by local officials and were arrested (along with a fourth relative) after being interviewed by a US journalist. After being held for 314 days in one of China’s many grim prisons, she is still facing a one-year jail sentence for “vandalism.”

Filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen has been detained since March 2008 for interviewing Tibetans, especially in the Amdo region, for a documentary he made about Tibet. Called “Leaving Fear Behind”, the film was screened clandestinely in Beijing during the Olympics.

Foreign journalists still privileged?

The organisers of the Beijing games provided the foreign media with spectacular installations and comforts and the authorities changed the rules for foreign journalists radically, allowing them an unprecedented freedom of movement and freedom to interview.

The new rules are still in force but they are applied in a very uneven manner. They are not applied at all in Tibet and the Tibetan regions, where dozens of foreign journalists were prevented from working during the rioting in March 2008 and again, on the anniversary of the riots, in March 2009. The government allowed the foreign press to go to Xinjiang immediately after last month’s rioting there, but journalists were arrested if they showed too much interest in the fate of Uyghurs held by the police.

The foreign media’s freedom to work was also curbed in the run-up to the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in June, when the political police arrested of threatened many dissidents or other persons who are used as sources by foreign reporters.

The central government is also trying to exercise closer control over Chinese citizens who work for foreign news media, forcing them to register with official or semi-official bodies. And many foreign news media, radio stations and websites, are still being censored without any official explanation.

New communication strategy – lessons from the Olympics?

The Chinese authorities accused the foreign media of being anti-Chinese during the March 2008 events in Tibet and the Olympic torch relay. A nationalist campaign was launched to intimidate the foreign media and some countries were accusing of demonizing Beijing’s human rights performance in Tibet.

To combat “western influence,” the Chinese authorities allocated additional resources to the provision of more favourable news and information internationally. Tens of millions of euros were invested in creating an international version of the government television station CCTV, and the other leading state-owned media were urged to promote their services more abroad.

The Chinese media were forced to use only the official version of events during the rioting in Tibet and Xinjiang, while the state apparatus orchestrated the incitement of hatred against minorities in order to better cover up the existence of Tibetan and Uyghur victims. The debate on the failure of current policies in these restive provinces was quickly restricted to the few liberal publications.

End of Olympic good times online

The arrival of thousands of foreign journalists for the games resulted in censorship being eased for Chinese Internet users. But almost all the websites that were unblocked at the time of the games have since been blocked again.

A major Internet filtering campaign was launched by the information ministry on 5 January 2009 with the declared aim of combating pornography. State enterprises heeded calls for renewed vigilance about website content. Among the sites that were blocked was the political blog portal Bullog, which had “published many negative reports of a political nature,” the information ministry said. The New York Times website has also been blocked several times.

To boost the campaign’s effectiveness, the government ordered Chinese and foreign computer manufacturers to install a filtering software on all computers sold in China. Called “Green Dam Youth Escort,” it is supposed to protect young people from “negative” Internet content. Its filtering options include the possibility of blocking political and religious content, including content linked to the Falun Gong movement. After an outcry, the authorities postponed obligatory installation of the software.

But not all online censorship is done in the name of combating pornography. The authorities censored all Uyghur-language websites during last month’s rioting in Xinjiang and they are still inaccessible (see the list). Access to the video-sharing website YouTube has also been blocked since March, without any official reason being given.

Bloggers and other Internet users continue to comment and criticise the ins and outs of Chinese society and politics. With increasing frequency, this forces the official media to cover embarrassing stories they would rather have ignored. But repressive measures are nonetheless still being taken against bloggers, especially by authorities at the local level. At least 10 have been arrested in connection with their blogging in the past 12 months.

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