BEIJING — Advocates of press freedom in China were on tenterhooks Tuesday as they convened a news conference, wondering whether police, who'd roughed up several foreign journalists Monday, would move in and block the event.
"We were concerned," said Bob Dietz of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based advocacy group. "We also know that China really wants to be on its best behavior. It doesn't want to cause incidents."
Police routinely break up unauthorized news conferences in China, but Tuesday's went on as planned, with two groups criticizing China as failing to live up to its pledge to offer "complete freedom" to journalists during the countdown to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing.
"It has made promises to the world that conditions for journalists would improve by the time of the Olympic Games one year from now," said Paul E. Steiger, the editor at large of The Wall Street Journal and the chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "Those promises have not been kept, particularly for Chinese journalists."
"Censorship is intense at newspapers and TV, and is extending to the Internet. Journalists are closely monitored, are arrested, sometimes beaten, sometimes jailed, often under vague state-security charges," Steiger said.
The committee issued a 79-page report titled "Falling Short," calling on China to free at least 29 journalists who are imprisoned here and urging the International Olympic Committee to hold China's feet to the fire on its commitments to the media.
Dietz, the group's Asia program coordinator, said he didn't know whether Tuesday's event was legal or not, although he said he'd been told "there are representatives of the government in the audience."
In a lengthy, separate report issued by e-mail Tuesday, Human Rights Watch says China is intimidating and reprimanding foreign journalists despite its pledges to the International Olympic Committee.
"The ongoing harassment and detention of journalists makes Beijing's Olympic pledge on media freedoms seem more like a public relations ploy than a sincere policy initiative," Brad Adams, the Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
On Jan. 1, China lifted most restrictions on foreign journalists traveling from their home bases, such as Beijing, and suspended rules that limited most man-on-the-street interviews. The relaxed rules will expire after the Olympics, on Oct. 17, 2008.
Steiger said the Beijing games had "the chance to be the greatest ever," but that China must relax its grip on the media to allow that to happen.
The Foreign Ministry now accredits 705 foreign journalists from 53 nations in China. Another 20,000 accredited foreign journalists and 10,000 without official accreditation are expected for the games Aug. 8-24, 2008.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told the China Daily newspaper Monday that it hasn't been easy for officials to open up to the foreign media. But he pledged to "ensure an even better working environment" for foreign journalists.
A week ago, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China released a survey that had found that 95 percent of 163 respondents didn't think that reporting conditions in China met what they considered international standards. While noting some improvement since Jan. 1, 67 percent said they thought that China had yet to allow "complete freedom to report."
After several leaders of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders hung banners Monday along a pedestrian walkway above a Beijing highway, police manhandled a handful of foreign reporters who were covering the event, seized their IDs and took the batteries from their video cameras. The reporters were released an hour or so later.
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