China has resumed blocking access to the internet sites of some foreign media, including the BBC, according to human rights group Reporters Without Borders.
The Chinese-language websites of the BBC and Voice of America, along with the Hong Kong-based media Ming Pao and Asiaweek are among the sites that have been inaccessible since earlier this month.
It is a move which appears to reverse the advances in press freedom and openness in China around the time of the Beijing Olympics this summer. These moves included greater freedom for western journalists to report from the country.
“Right now, the authorities are gradually rolling back all the progress made in the run-up to this summer’s Olympic games, when even foreign websites in Mandarin were made accessible. The pretence of liberalisation is now over,” the press freedom group said as it urged China to unblock the sites.
Earlier this week, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao defended his country’s right to censor websites that have material deemed illegal by the government, saying that other countries regulate their internet usage too.
During the Summer Games held in August, China allowed access to long-barred websites such as the BBC site and Human Rights Watch after an outcry from foreign reporters who complained that Beijing was failing to live up to its pledges of greater media freedom.
The fact that China has now chosen to re-block those sites is not so surprising, said Rebecca MacKinnon, a journalism professor who teaches about media and the internet at the University of Hong Kong.
“I don’t think very many people expected to see the Olympics herald a whole new era in China, at least not as far as politics and media,” she said.
MacKinnon noted that the policing of the internet in China, which has the most online users in the world with more than 250 million, swings between phases of looser monitoring and then tighter regulation.
“There were a lot of foreigners running around covering the Olympics. It made sense to unblock at that time,” she said.
Nicholas Bequelin, Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said Beijing was also taking advantage of the fact that the world’s attention has shifted away from China after the Olympics.
“It’s easier to suppress dissent when you don’t have 10,000 journalists in town,” he said.
The website censorship also comes as the government continues a clampdown against more than 300 writers, academics and critics who signed a recent bold appeal circulating on the internet calling for greater freedoms and an end to China’s one-party rule.
The manifesto, dubbed Charter 08, is one of the broadest calls for multi-party democracy in recent years.
One of its signers, Liu Xiaobo, a writer and former professor, remains in police custody more than a week after being detained. Dozens of other signers have reported being summoned and harassed by police.