Rules of the Games

Beijing 2008: Time Trials for Press Freedom

Beijing has a new city anthem. “We Are Ready,” crooned by a chorus of 200 singers before a crowd of some 10,000 people, was introduced last night in a festival celebrating the one-year-out mark for the 2008 Olympic Games—and stressing Beijing’s preparedness to be their host. The festival, however, as festivals tend to do, glossed over a less-laudatory aspect of Beijing 2008: that, a year from today, the world won’t merely be watching the spectacle-meets-ritual that is the Summer Games’ Opening Ceremonies; it will be also be watching to see whether, as IOC President Jacques Rogge claims, the Olympics are truly “a force for good wherever they are staged.”

Indeed, the ultimate test in Beijing might have less to do with the Games themselves and more with the people who tell their story: the Chinese press. In one of the world’s few remaining Communist regimes—and, not for nothing, its most populous nation—press freedom is notoriously constricted. China’s chronic maltreatment of the media, in fact, was one of the key issues of contention in Beijing’s bid for the Games back in 2001; the People’s Republic finally made reluctant concessions on that point (and others) to win the honor. (“We will give the media complete freedom to report when they come to China,” Wang Wei, the bid committee’s vice president, assured reporters.) Now, with only a year to go until the Beijing Games—a mere blip on the epic scale of Olympic Standard Time—it’s fair to assess: was that pledge merely empty appeasement? Or will China play by the rules of the Games, ushering in, as it promised it would, a better era for its journalism?

A report just released by the Committee to Protect Journalists provides some preliminary, and fairly dismal, answers to those questions. An aggregative examination of press freedom—or lack thereof—in the PRC, the study paints a picture of a press corps whose ability to exercise journalism’s most basic mandate—to bear witness to the world around it—still finds itself caught in the vice of a politically paranoid regime. Media outlets in China are still overseen by the state, and their work is still reviewed by Communist Party censors. Journalists’ e-mail accounts—and Web sites and blogs and IM conversations and text messages—are still monitored. Their salaries are still partially based on the number of articles they publish, with pieces deemed unfriendly to the government (especially stories about the military, religion, and internal Party workings) routinely suppressed. Acting as a fixer for an international journalist, when not arranged through government channels, is still a punishable offense.

None of this is news, really. But that’s kind of the point—the old news about those press freedoms still applies. The Chinese government promised to relax its grip, but it didn’t.

More immediately worrisome, CPJ reports that twenty-nine journalists are currently imprisoned in China, twenty-four of them on ambiguous “anti-state” charges. (Reporters Without Borders puts the number jailed at fifty.) That makes China the world’s top jailer of journalists—a gold medal it has earned each year since 1999.

Here is what China has done, nominally at least, in the service of press freedom: on January 1, 2007, its government eased travel and reporting restrictions on foreign journalists, making movement around the country—and interviewing Chinese sources—more feasible. However, in a move that is difficult to see as anything other than a subtle extension of China’s middle finger toward press-freedom nags, those improvements are legally set to expire on October 17, 2008—a mere two-months and change after the Games’ closing ceremonies. Furthermore, that fleetingly loosened grip applies only to international journalists. For Chinese reporters it is, apparently, business as usual.

Beijing, like any host would, is busily preparing for its guests’ upcoming arrival. Its home is being cleaned; its pillows are being fluffed; its walls are getting fresh coats of paint. Its visitors—and viewers—next August will be treated to the very best the city, and its country, have to offer. China will be putting out the good china, if you will. Meanwhile, Chinese government researchers, as ABCNews reports, are already compiling dossiers on groups and individuals “that could cause disruptions at the games”—and this past Monday, roughly a dozen Reporters Without Borders protesters were briefly detained, without explanation, by twenty Beijing police. Get close enough, and that “good china” looks a lot like the everyday stuff.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.