With just over a week to go before the start of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been forced to admit that some of its own officials cut a deal to let China continue to block sensitive websites at the International Press Centre. This is despite earlier promises by China of unrestricted access for the duration of the Games.
Journalists arriving in Beijing this week found that some sites, including the Chinese language websites of major international broadcasters such as the BBC, Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and Deutsche Welle, were blocked. A clearly embarrassed Kevan Gosper, the IOC’s press chief, told journalists:
“I regret that it now appears BOCOG [the Beijing Organising Committee] has announced that there will be limitations on website access during Games time. 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.”
The list of websites that are inaccessible at the Press Centre is considerable: Apart from the international broadcasters, others include Amnesty International, which released a report on Monday slamming China for failing to honour its Olympic human rights pledges, Reporters Without Borders, and a number of websites related to the banned spiritual group Falun Gong, as well as sites dealing with Tibet. Selected material on the YouTube and Wikipedia sites dealing with sensitive Chinese issues is also blocked.
Beijing organisers have insisted that censorship would not stop journalists doing their jobs in reporting the Games. BOCOG spokesman Sun Weide told a news conference:
“We are going to do our best to facilitate the foreign media to do their reporting work through the Internet. I would remind you that Falun Gong is an evil, fake religion which has been banned by the Chinese government.”
However, journalists from Western countries have already begun to express their anger at the Chinese position. Some of that anger is now likely to turn towards the IOC. In an interview only two weeks ago, IOC president Jacques Rogge insisted that reporters would have full Internet access:
“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.”
There are sure to be demands to know exactly which IOC officials negotiated the deal with the Beijing Organising Committee, and why. Another question is whether Jacques Rogge and press chief Kevan Gosper knew of the deal with the organising committee, and if not why not.
The Chinese government could yet decide that unblocking the sites is a less harmful option than allowing negative publicity to overshadow the Games. For the IOC, the debate about its apparent willingness to bow to the political demands of host nations is likely to continue until long after Beijing 2008 is over.