Can you 'report freely' on Olympics with Net restrictions?

International Olympic Committee acceded to Chinese government demands that some Internet censorship be kept in place during the games. How much of a problem will it really be?

The International Olympic Committee has acknowledged that it acceded to Chinese government demands that some Internet censorship be kept in place during the Olympics, The New York Times reported Thursday.

Nevermind that IOC promised journalists could "report freely" from the games. Still, is this really a problem for reporters?

Long story short: this isn't much of a problem. Journalists arriving in Beijing without regularly being stationed there have already spent however much money to get to China and stay in hotels. They can afford a VPN service, which will completely circumvent the government restrictions--that is, if their newsroom doesn't have one already. Journalists will just have to learn how to use the Internet under less-than-ideal circumstances.

The long story: for the unaccustomed, the restrictions will be a pain in the neck. Certain things will be blocked in certain places. You'll never know exactly why something was stopped. Not-so-savvy reporters or those with old computers may have trouble using proxies and VPN.

But this doesn't really stop reporters from "reporting freely."

What would stop that is denial of access, denial of free travel, and threats or actual detainment or deportation after publishing something the government doesn't like.

I can say from personal experience that certain towns in the northwestern province of Xinjiang were being treated as off-limits to foreigners and some Chinese from out of town as recently as 10 days ago. We've already seen Beijing police acting violently against reporters from Hong Kong and breaking camera equipment at an Olympics news event.

Reporting freedom will not be complete in Beijing, but Internet censorship is not the reason. When foreign journalists are the target of restrictions, that's not much of a civil liberties problem for Chinese people, who face a restricted internet whether or not a bunch of reporters get a free pass this summer.

Perhaps reporters should get over their own selves and write more about Chinese people.

UPDATE July 31, 2008 17:23 GMT: The AP reports that an official who guaranteed free access to journalists was surprised by the shift:

Gosper said he first learned of China's backtracking on Internet access when Beijing organizing committee spokesman Sun Weide announced Tuesday that journalists would have only "sufficient" -- not unrestricted -- access to the Internet.

Since then, Gosper said he has felt "a bit isolated" within the IOC and was surprised at being left out of the loop.

About the author

    Formerly a journalist and consultant in Beijing, Graham Webster is a graduate student studying East Asia at Harvard University. At Sinobyte, he follows the effects of technology on Chinese politics, the environment, and global affairs. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network, and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.

     

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