Rights groups urge China to extend new press freedom to domestic media

BEIJING (AFP) — Rights groups and media experts Saturday gave a cautious welcome to China’s decision to allow foreign reporters greater freedom and urged Beijing to extend the same rights to domestic journalists.

China announced late Friday that greater freedoms introduced for the Olympic Games for foreign reporters would be extended, giving them the right to interview consenting Chinese without first seeking government permission.

The rules were first introduced on January 1 last year as part of China’s Olympic media freedom commitments, but had been due to run out on Friday.

Domestic journalists, however, were not affected by the rules and were still laden with strict reporting restrictions — a fact deplored by rights groups and media experts.

Human Rights in China, a New-York based activist group, urged the Chinese government to also extend these freedoms to domestic reporters.

“The Chinese government should answer the calls of its own people,” said group executive director Sharon Hom.

“It should respect its own constitution which guarantees press freedom, a right that many Chinese journalists and writers have paid — and are paying — a great price to exercise.”

David Bandurski, a researcher for the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong, said the issue of press freedom in China was determined by domestic media policy rather than rules governing foreign reporters’ work.

“This is not going to have any appreciable impact on domestic journalists,” he said.

“This is really about China’s international image. China has decided that the international benefits they are going to get in terms of their image of openness are sufficient to outweigh any negative coverage they might get.”

The rules announced Friday also stipulated that foreign reporters would be allowed to report outside the city in which they were officially based without having to get authorisation.

But they would still have to get permission from local authorities to gain access to the sensitive Himalayan region of Tibet, where the military quelled protests against Chinese rule in March.

Chinese nationals, however, still remained barred from working for foreign media organisations as reporters.

But Li Datong, a journalist who was once sacked as editor of a hard-hitting supplement to the China Youth Daily, said the rules governing foreign reporters would have a positive effect on media freedom in China in the long run.

“It is just not possible that the whole world’s press report on something, and Chinese journalists do not,” he said.

“So it will improve the number of issues that Chinese journalists report on.”

But he said he believed it would be decades before domestic reporters enjoyed greater media freedom.

“There is more and more freedom, but the progress is still quite slow,” he said.

“It will take another 30 years or so to reach the standards of the West.”

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said it welcomed the decision to extend Olympic media freedoms but warned that correct implementation at the local level was essential.

“If properly implemented, we believe this will mark a step forward in the opening of China’s media environment,” club president Jonathan Watts said in a statement.

“We urge the government to ensure that police and local officials respect the spirit as well as the letter of the new rules,” Watts said.

The club has recorded more than 335 cases of authorities interfering with reporters since January 1 last year.

– AFP –

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