February 13, 2008 / 10:22 AM / 10 years ago

Group says China failing on media freedom promises

BEIJING (Reuters) - China is failing to live up to assurances that it will guarantee press freedom for the 2008 Beijing Games, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said on Wednesday, calling 2007 a “year of disillusionment”.

In its annual report, the Paris-based group said at least 33 journalists and 51 cyber-dissidents were in prison in China, making it the world’s largest jailer of journalists.

“Many observers had expected more tolerance to be shown to the press along with greater freedom of expression, as the authorities had pledged,” the report said.

China places strict controls on its own media but promised greater freedoms for foreign journalists to cover the Olympics and in January last year eased rules governing their ability to report outside major cities.

But Reporters Without Borders said nearly 180 foreign reporters were harassed or detained last year, citing statistics compiled by the Foreign Correspondents Club of China.

China has made no promises to its own reporters, and the group detailed restrictions local media face on a daily basis.

“Everyone in the newsroom knows that we have to wait for the story from the official news agency Xinhua when there is an issue related to party leaders, official appointments or international subjects such as North Korea,” the report quoted a journalist from the Beijing News as saying.

“It is much too risky to publish anything before then.”

Reporters at the state-run China Central Television receive daily warnings when they switch on their computers detailing what subjects to avoid or handle with caution, the report said.

Local journalists trying to cover sensitive stories have faced physical violence, as in the case of five journalists who were beaten by local thugs while in the central province of Hunan to probe the collapse of a bridge that killed dozens of people.

In the past year, China also initiated a campaign against “bogus journalists”, saying such people use phoney accreditation in scams in which they pose as reporters and try to blackmail officials by threatening negative coverage.

Rights groups say the campaign is being used as justification to prevent reporters from pursuing stories that local authorities deem unfavourable.

State media has reported that the General Administration of Press and Publication was compiling a database of 30,000 foreign journalists accredited to cover the Games to prevent interviewees from being duped by “fake reporters”.

China’s Foreign Ministry later denied the report, but Chinese Olympic officials defended the existence of such a database, saying it would be used to help the media cover the Games, which open on August 8.

Reporting by Lindsay Beck; Editing by David Fox

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