‘Do your homework before you go’was the message about the Beijing Olympics next summer, from a session on the games and their implications at the NewsXchange broadcasting conference in Berlin.
In contributions from China via satellite, both a journalism professor and a member of the ruling government reiterated that foreign journalists must come to the country with an understanding that the media culture is very different to Western society – and so, by implication, are the rules of engagement.
Ying Yuen Chan, director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at Hong Kong University, said that journalists needed to recognise they would be working within a different media culture and that getting a response from China officials will not be as straightforward as in Western society.
Journalists were also warned that their phones could be tapped in the country. Chinese sources were very careful, on the phone but may be outspoken in emails. Contacts should be prepared beforehand, if possible.
Ying Yuen Chan urged journalists to guard their emails and hard drives but added they might be surprised at the ‘tremendous freedom’of the local people who, she predicted, would come and talk to journalists, air grievances and would be happy to work
as fixers. However, she warned: ‘It is up to you to protect your sources.”
On 1 January 2007, new temporary regulations for foreign journalists took effect in China. These include ‘to interview organisations or individuals in China, foreign journalists need to only to obtain their prior consent”. These regulations will expire in October 2008 and do not apply to national journalists. It is also uncertain whether they apply to the autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang.
Ambassador Wu Jianmin, president of China Foreign Affairs University said that Westerners needed to understand China in context. He said the country only began opening up to the world in 1978 and is evolving – although not maybe as quickly as Western society may wish.
On the games, Wu Jianmin advised: ‘The Chinese are very serious about the rules. The Games are an international event; you have to play by the rules. If foreign journalists play by the rules, there will be no problem.”
He added: ‘Freedom of expression is not unlimited. Every country has its laws. If you operate within [that] freedom, you can enjoy that freedom.”
The Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games has reportedly accredited 16,000 broadcast journalists and 5,000 print journalists and photographers as of this August.
China has pledged full media access for all accredited journalists without distinguishing between Chinese and foreign journalists.
Concerns were raised for both foreign and national journalists. According to Amnesty International, in 2007, foreign journalists reported several cases of being harassed, threatened, detained and assaulted while attempting to work in areas outside Beijing.
National journalists reported similar attacks, with several publications ordered to close down following politically sensitive reports.
And according to the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 29 journalists are in prison as a direct result of their work. Domestic censorship includes bans on stories about military ethnic conflicts, unofficial religion and the internal workings of the Chinese Communist Party and government.
David Schlesinger, Reuters editor-in-chief warned that foreign journalists should be aware of the consequences of their actions for local fixers who will remain in China after the Olympics.
Frank Smyth, the Washington representative of the CPJ, said that all media in China is regulated by the Central Propaganda Department. ‘Journalists need to realise how restrictive [this is] for Chinese journalists. But he added that this represented ‘an opportunity’for foreign journalists to cover stories that Chinese journalists cannot.
He also reiterated that if journalists were going to tackle sensitive stories, they should be mindful of putting other people at risk
Questions remain about whether the Chinese authorities will allow an Olympics Games to be broadcast and reported upon unfettered. And how foreign journalists are likely to be treated if they stray from reporting on the sporting issues. Hao Gui, China editor for the German broadcaster, Deutsche Welle, said about China: ‘Rule number one is that you can talk about everything but the political. Rule number two is that everything’s political.”