Beijing aims to show openness to media

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BEIJING -- Olympic host Beijing is going to great pains to show the world that it is living up to its media freedom pledge even as rights groups continue to round on the government for trampling on reporters' basic rights. Games organizers began a slew of news conferences on everything from economics to politics to culture, not to mention sport, more than two weeks before the Games opened, keen to demonstrate openness on every front.

Telephone numbers for ministries, unusually including previously jealously guarded mobile telephone numbers, have been published online, and restrictions eased on reporting on the normally highly sensitive Tiananmen Square.

Before the Games opened, government spokesman Guo Weimin took the unusual step of interrupting a news conference he was chairing on China's first-half economic performance to give reassurances on media freedom.

"Beijing Games organizers have worked extremely hard to put into effect their Olympic promises and to allow overseas journalists to report on the Olympics," he said. "Almost every day we'll hold an average of two news conferences."

News conferences, plodding and dry affairs much of the time in China, have loosened up a little, too.

On Saturday, the avuncular Wang Dexue, deputy head of the State Administration of Work Safety, dispensed with the custom of laboriously reading out a statement given to reporters ahead of time, and simply opened the floor to questions.

"We can be relaxed about things today," Wang told the reporters who had gathered to hear him talk about a topic not in the least connected to the Olympics.

A week earlier, Xinjiang's vice governor, Kuerxi Maihesuti, calmly answered questions on terrorism even though the subject of the news conference was cultural protection. Chinese officials often refuse to answer questions off-topic at such events.

And in Tiananmen, center of a pro-democracy movement bloodily crushed by the government in 1989, reporters last week were not detained by police after covering a small protest by U.S. Christians.

Any other time, journalists would likely have been marched off, too, but given a lecture and then let go, rather than being arrested or deported.

Yet in a sign that old habits die hard, plainclothes police manhandled the reporters at the protest, and tried to snatch away microphones and notebooks.

The situation elsewhere is also far from perfect.

A storm over Internet censorship in the main press center for the Games clouded the run-up to the Olympics, prompting condemnation from the likes of Amnesty International.

In Kashgar, in the restive far western region of Xinjiang, nervous Chinese police beat two Japanese journalists who had gone to the city to cover the attack on a police station by suspected militants a few days before the Games started.

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China said in a statement on the opening day of the Olympics on Friday that it continued to have concerns.

"Despite progress in some areas, the FCCC is disappointed that the Chinese government has neither fully lived up to its Olympic promise of a free media environment nor made a clear-cut and enduring commitment to further openings after the Games," said FCCC president Jonathan Watts.

"We strongly urge China to match its growing global influence with greater accountability."
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