As China prepared to host its first Olympics, in 2008, Beijing promised there would be “no restrictions” on media coverage and passed new regulations giving foreign reporters access to the entire country.
In the end, those grand promises didn’t really pan out: Reporters were harassed, surveilled and expelled; censorship of domestic media remained pervasive; and the new regulations expired almost as soon as the Games were over.
The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are only months away, and this time around there isn’t even a pretense of greater openness. In a statement this week, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) criticized the “lack of transparency and clarity” from both local Olympic organizers and the International Olympic Committee.
“Over the last year, the foreign press corps has been continuously stymied in its coverage of Winter Olympic Game preparations, denied attendance at routine events and prevented from visiting sports venues in China,” the group said. “With less than three months remaining before the start of Beijing 2022, there is still tremendous uncertainty over how and if foreign correspondents will be able to cover the Games.”
The FCCC, which represents journalists from more than 40 countries, said foreign reporters had been barred from Olympic venues and events open to domestic media or forced to jump through hoops such as submitting COVID-19 test results “within an impossible timeframe of only a few hours.”
Asked about the complaints at a regular news conference Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the FCCC statement “is not based on facts.”
“From the outset of the preparation work, we have always welcomed media outlets from across the world for reporting and coverage,” Mr. Wang said, adding that Beijing “does not recognize the organization you mentioned.”
But the FCCC is not the only group to raise concerns about the Beijing Winter Games, which look poised to be the most closed and controlled Olympics in history. Anyone attending the Games will be subject to strict vaccine and quarantine requirements and kept within a “closed-loop” system, a tightly policed bubble around Olympic venues and hotels, separate from the rest of China.
Last month, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said: “With China having suffered no apparent negative consequences, either for reneging on commitments to the foreign press, or for punishing local reporters trying to shine a light on wrongdoing, improvements in 2022 seem highly unlikely.
“This is especially true in the COVID-19 era, where health and distancing regulations make it easier to control journalists’ movements,” it added.
The IOC did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In a statement to the news site Inside the Games, a spokesperson said the IOC “places great importance on the work of the global media and its coverage of the Olympic Games.
“Today, we have been made aware of the specific concerns of the FCCC through their statement and we will address them with the Beijing 2022 Organizing Committee,” they said.
Few reporters in Beijing were holding out hope, however, and many shared the FCCC statement on Twitter along with their own experiences trying to report on the run-up to the Games.
“China promised ‘freedom to report’ in its bid for the Winter Olympics,” said Tom Cheshire, Asia correspondent for Britain’s Sky News. “Even accounting for the real issues of the pandemic, we are not getting that.”
David Rennie, the Beijing bureau chief for The Economist, said the “restrictions on foreign media access to the upcoming Winter Olympics – an event that belongs to the world, not to China – go far beyond COVID precautions.
“The pandemic is being used by China as an excuse to shape and control Games coverage,” he added.
At least those reporters are in China. As the FCCC statement said, dozens of foreign correspondents remain stuck outside the country because of outstanding visa applications. Hardly any press passes have been issued since the beginning of the pandemic, leaving many publications – including The Globe and Mail – covering China from Hong Kong, Taiwan or elsewhere in East Asia.
One reason Beijing may not relish greater coverage of the 2022 Games is how politicized they have become, with many calling for a boycott over China’s policies in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
But while individual politicians in Canada, the United States and Britain have voiced support for a boycott, no government has been willing to do so, and any chance of a co-ordinated effort seems to be slipping away as the Olympics approach.
In a communiqué this weekend, the G20 said it was looking forward to the “Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympics 2022, as opportunities for competition for athletes from around the world, which serves as a symbol of humanity’s resilience.”
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