The Media Today

COVID and China’s press threats combine to curb Winter Olympics coverage

February 1, 2022
A performer runs across the stage during a rehearsal for the medal ceremonies ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics, Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

In July, as the Tokyo Olympic Games got underway, I wrote in this newsletter about the unprecedented health protocols facing journalists traveling to cover them. This week, journalists are again traveling to cover an Olympics—of the winter variety this time, in Beijing—and the COVID rules are even tougher, with China enforcing a “zero COVID” policy. According to NBC’s Fernando Hurtado, who made a video of the arrival process, foreign reporters must use a special app to monitor their health for fourteen days before entering China, take at least two pre-departure tests, and attest to their vaccination status (or else face a three-week quarantine); following another test on arrival, members of the media must stay within a “closed loop” linking their hotel to Olympic venues, travel on official shuttles, and submit to daily PCR testing administered by a health worker. (In an extreme bid to avoid human contact, robots are preparing foodand cocktails—in the media center and delivering meals via overhead claws.) “My biggest fear is testing positive there, because they can keep you for months until you get a series of negative tests,” Owen Slot, a sports reporter at The Times of London, said yesterday. “I keep on joking to my wife that I don’t know when I’m going to see her again. Hopefully that remains a funny joke.”

In other ways, the climate for journalists arriving in Beijing is an extreme departure from the Tokyo Games—they must grapple with invasive press-freedom concerns, too. Slot said that his employer has banned him from taking his phone and laptop to the Games, telling him to use burners instead so that Chinese officials can’t spy on his data; the Committee to Protect Journalists has issued similar guidance, advising reporters to create a special work email for the trip, wipe or discard their devices on returning home, and assume that they are being surveilled—both digitally and in their hotel room. The organizers have promised unrestricted internet access within the closed loop, but CPJ suggests that reporters familiarize themselves with available VPNs in case of restrictions, while warning, at the same time, that accessing an unlicensed VPN “could be used against you if officials are looking for an excuse to penalize you.” According to the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, the special health app that Olympic attendees must use is riddled with security flaws and may even have the capacity to monitor sensitive speech. “I think it’s just astonishing that the International Olympic Committee can sign up to an Olympics in a country where you can’t use your own phone,” Slot said, “but that’s just me.”

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Chinese officials have long been accused of obstructing reporting on the build-up to the Games. Three months ago, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China reported on a series of obstacles to coverage including dismissive press officers and a lack of access to press events open to domestic media, with officials citing capacity limits or last-minute testing requirements; a reporter for an American newspaper said that they were questioned by police after trying to take a cellphone photo of an Olympic venue from a public road, while a broadcaster said their access had been curtailed after they reported on human-rights boycotts. The curbs come against the backdrop of a deteriorating situation for foreign media in China. This week, the FCCC published another report, based on an annual survey, detailing an increased prevalence of online, physical, and legal threats against its members. NPR’s Emily Feng said that a swarm of social-media accounts harassed her with violent threats after a state-tied blog “published numerous exposés criticizing my reporting from a half year ago as ‘illegal.’”

Numerous foreign-media workers who might otherwise have attended the Games have stayed away. NBC, which holds the broadcasting rights in the US, has hundreds of staffers in Beijing, but they’re mostly on the technical side. Mike Tirico will host from the ground (at least until he returns to the US to cover the Super Bowl), but other star journalists and announcers will drive the network’s coverage remotely from the US; ESPN, for its part, said that the four reporters it had planned to send to the Games will now also cover them remotely. Both cited COVID restrictions and compared the situation to Tokyo. But there are no clean parallels here. The line between COVID restrictions and press-freedom curbs is blurred in China since officials have often cited the former to justify the latter. And, as editors told the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi, the closed-loop system will have the effect of limiting the scope of Olympics reporters’ coverage around the Games. When Beijing hosted the summer Olympics in 2008, Farhi notes, US outlets covered “the plight of Beijing residents whose neighborhoods were razed to build Olympic arenas.”

The Chinese government is hoping that the Games will be a propaganda coup, including in the Western press, using sports—and the international legitimacy that comes with hosting a global event—to distract from stories about its appalling human-rights abuses, not least in the Xinjiang region. “Right now, the political and investigative journalists have the front page,” Susan Brownell, an expert on Chinese sports at the University of Missouri-St Louis, told The Observer, also drawing a comparison to 2008. “But once the Games start, it will be the sports journalists.” As the Games have approached, press- and human-rights groups have loudly urged news organizations to ensure that this isn’t the case. NBC has faced especially sharp questions; according to Axios, Republican lawmakers recently wrote to network executives expressing concern about possible Chinese government “influence” over NBC’s coverage. NBCUniversal has responded to such questions by insisting that it has a track record of covering the geopolitics of a given Games and that it will incorporate “difficult issues regarding the host nation” into its coverage this time, too, though it also said that “the athletes” will “remain the focus” of its Olympics team. (The news division will continue to cover China as normal.)

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Here, too, there are no clear lines. That’s always true of the blurring between sports and politics coverage, however much some sports media might wish it weren’t the case. But the challenge appears especially sharp this time. Athletes might not remain the focus for their sporting prowess should Chinese officials follow through on their threats to punish competitors who speak out about sensitive topics. And journalists cannot ignore that their professional counterparts are among those at the sharp end of the Chinese government’s human-rights abuses. Indeed, Reporters Without Borders recently urged more governments to join a diplomatic boycott of the Games so that they might “show their disapproval of the Chinese regime’s authoritarian methods and signal their support to the 129 journalists and press freedom defenders it currently detains.” (The US, the UK, Canada, and Japan, among other countries, already took this step.)

Journalists with close Western ties are among those currently being detained in China. Haze Fan, a staffer in Bloomberg’s Beijing bureau, has spent more than a year behind bars; she’s been accused of violating national-security laws, but the authorities haven’t offered more information about her case. Cheng Lei, an Australian citizen and friend of Fan’s who worked for a Chinese state broadcaster, has been in detention for even longer, also on national-security grounds. A year ago this week, Cheng’s family spoke out about the toll on her young children in Australia, who don’t know when they’ll see their mom again. That certainly isn’t a funny joke.

Below, more on press freedom in China and around the world:

  • China: Paul Mozur, Steven Lee Myers, and John Liu report, for the New York Times, that China is clamping down especially tightly on dissidents as the Games get underway, jailing some, putting others under house arrest, and further curbing critics’ access to social media. Hu Jia, a human-rights activist, told the Times that police have confined him to his apartment and threatened to limit his rights to see his mother. Liang Xiaojun, a lawyer whose license was recently revoked, said that police have stepped up their monitoring of him as part of what they called China’s “Olympic security period.”
  • Mexico: Yesterday, gunmen in Zitácuaro, in the Mexican state of Michoacán, shot and killed Roberto Toledo, a local-news reporter who had covered corruption. Toledo is the fourth journalist to be murdered in Mexico already this year. Last week, media workers rallied across the country in protest of the violence and the government’s inaction in the face of it; according to The Guardian, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the president, has pinned the killings on “the legacy of ‘neoliberalism’ and claimed that political opponents were stirring outrage over the murder of reporters to discredit his government.”
  • Myanmar: One year ago today, a military junta seized power in Myanmar, precipitating a disaster for press-freedom in the country; according to Reporters Without Borders, officials have since arrested at least 115 journalists, continued to detain fifty-seven, and convicted fourteen of crimes, while at least three journalists have been killed, all within the past two months. “A military campaign of intimidation, censorship, arrests, and detentions of journalists has more recently graduated to outright killing,” Shawn W. Crispin, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, writes, “an escalation of repression that aims ultimately to stop independent media reporting on the junta’s crimes and abuses.”
  • France: Ophélie Meunier, a TV journalist with the French network M6, is receiving police protection after hosting a documentary focused on Islamist fundamentalism in France; she fielded violent threats following its broadcast last weekend. Eric Zemmour, a far-right French presidential candidate, also seized on the documentary, claiming that it shows the “Islamisation” of France. The director of the film said that while hearing Zemmour recommend it did not please her, “it’s important to be able to denounce a dangerous ideology without being accused of Islamophobia.” The film’s producer accused other journalists of being slow to express solidarity with Meunier in the wake of the threats.
  • Russia: For CJR, Beth Knobel, a former Moscow bureau chief at CBS News, reflects on a recent leak suggesting that the Russian government had an informant inside the bureau during her tenure. “I used to joke that I really didn’t care if the FSB spied on us, as long as our competitors at ABC and NBC News did not,” Knobel writes. “Still, our experience should serve as a reminder to foreign reporters in authoritarian states like Putin’s Russia—and so many nations which mistrust the work of the free press—that prying eyes are still on them.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.