The Olympic Games in Beijing opens in less than 100 hours. The foreign media contingent is estimated at more than 20,000, roughly double the number of competing athletes. To be sure, not all the reporters and news crews are focused on sports.
Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières – RSF) published a short set of practical guidelines for foreign reporters in China. RSF “urges” reporters “to look at the issue of free expression, although it will not be easy.” With the Beijing Olympics already dubbed the ‘No Fun Olympics’ a good percentage of those reporters and news crews will be falling all over each other looking for juicy side-bars on ‘the real China’.
The RSF guidelines could be summarized into two words: be paranoid. Install firewalls on your laptops. Encrypt your emails. Change cellphone SIM cards often. “Do not leave your equipment and contact lists in an accessible condition in a hotel room.”
The Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) published (July 29) a more comprehensive set of guidelines, and a shade less febrile. The reporting environment in China, says the FCCC introduction, is “unpredictable” and may fall “short of international media’s expectations.” The ‘Great Opening’ provided by the Olympic games can look like great confusion.
“China is a rapidly changing country economically and socially,” cautions the FCCC, “and this holds true for the government’s media handling apparatus as well.”
Number one, says the FCCC, for reporters working the field in China, particularly those venturing away from Olympic venues, is consideration for translators, interpreters and interview subjects. Referring to New York Times researcher Zhao Yan’s three year prison sentence, “They are at greater risk than you are.”
The worst a foreign reporter risks is deportation. “Chinese citizens have to stay in China and you don’t.”
For the vast majority of foreign reporters local Chinese assistants are indispensable. They will be grilled by local authorities about every aspect of the reporters’ job, including itineraries and contacts. Reporters should not, in turn, grill an assistant about those meetings. “The foreign journalist should consider it his or her responsibility to consider the welfare of their local assistants.”
The FCCC makes four special points about explaining to a local interpreter exactly what is and is not a reporters’ job. These are revealing in their elegance and simplicity. Indeed, copy them. Send to all those who confuse work for a broadcaster from country A with working for the government of country A, unless of course, it’s a State mouthpiece.
1) Gathering news is not “interfering with the domestic affairs of China” or “espionage” but normal reporting which takes place in almost every country of the world. You want to find and tell the truth. Not more, not less.
2) Foreign correspondents work for their respective media organizations, not for their countries’ governments. They are not government agents or employees. They are expected to be loyal only to their own conscience and to their news organizations.
3) Foreign correspondents are not propaganda tools either for their own countries’ governments or for the Chinese government.
4) Journalists all over the world have a duty to protect the people who confide in them – which means a duty to protect their sources. This is holds true in China as elsewhere: Media should try to ensure that nobody gets in trouble for talking with foreign correspondents or their local assistants.
Press freedom in China coverage gets about zero traction with the public, and not much more from media professionals. The amount of ink – newspaper and press release – poured into it notwithstanding, the reason is cliché and quite simple. The oldest definition of news: when dog bites man, it’s not news; when man bites dog, that’s news.
A wholly unscientific perusal of ftm traffic since the San Francisco Olympic torch protests, tens of thousands of page views from over 150 countries, shows virtually no interest in press freedom in China. Granted, 75% of ftm’s readers are media professionals, the rest being punters who stumble in. Technology in China, yes. Media development in China, yes. Press freedom in China, nearly nothing. Sort Americans and Brits out of the list and it’s absolutely zero.
Chinese authorities rounding up reporters, blocking internet sites and restricting foreign media are just examples of ‘man bites dog.’ Nobody really expected the ‘great opening’ of China, and certainly not in the Western framework of press freedom. The only media story worthy of coverage to date is the International Olympic Committee’s less than candid disclosure of its agreements with Chinese officials over working arrangements for news organizations, including internet access. What else did Jacques Rogge agree to?
By the time news crews arrived in Kashgar following Monday’s terrorist bombing that killed 16 Chinese border guards the authorities were waiting to disuade intensive coverage. Two Japanese journalists claimed they were beaten up by local cops. The AP reports (August 5) an apology was received… after the beating. A French photographers cameras were seized and erased. So much for the ‘great openness’ IOC President Rogge secured from the Chinese authorities. But, again, it’s ‘man bites dog.’
The BBC released (August 4) results of a survey conducted in five countries on attitudes toward China as the Beijing Games draw near. Even with China’s isolation from the “outside world,” say GlobeScan research director Sam Mountford, “majorities in Britain, the US and India still see the Chinese as ‘friendly’ and over half in the US and Britain think that the Chinese are like them.” And people under 35 “in every country polled…see China as an ally rather than a threat.”
But nobody under 35 looks at a newspaper, do they?
The Beijing Olympics are the foundation for the great curiosity about the world’s most populous country, fast becoming an economic superpower. The thinking, or lack thereof, that countenanced dribble about boycotts has given way to insight and inspiration. The IOC and Google announced (August 5) that YouTube will show Olympic coverage and highlights in nearly 80 countries where on-demand rights had not been secured.