Beijing police told not to disrupt foreign journalists

New rules were issued to law enforcement last week

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BEIJING -- Beijing's security-obsessed police have been told not to interfere in foreign journalists' news coverage, part of efforts to show openness while avoiding embarrassment at the Beijing Olympics, which begin Friday.

The Games have galvanized global critics of China on an array of issues, including journalists' freedom to report, media access to the Internet and the treatment of dissidents, petitioners and Tibetans.

According to an internal document seen by Reuters, new rules issued last week instruct Beijing police not to interfere with anti-government public speeches concerning the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong, Xinjiang, Tibet or Taiwan independence.

They can intervene only if there is "drastic action that attracts a crowd or affects public order" on the capital's Tiananmen Square or other politically sensitive sites.

The rules were introduced after an outcry in the Hong Kong media over police shoving reporters covering the chaotic last-minute sale of Olympic tickets late last month. An officer was kicked in the groin and taken to hospital.

The rules also bar police from blocking camera lenses of photographers and television cameramen covering news or damaging their equipment.

Law enforcement authorities are not allowed to seize camera memory cards, the document said, adding that reporters cannot be taken to police stations for questioning in "ordinary cases."

Police also were told not to interfere in foreign journalists' interviews with evicted residents, farmers deprived of land, laid-off workers, discharged servicemen, those anti-Japanese or anti-French and human rights activists unless there is drastic action, a crowd gathering or public order is disrupted, the document said.

France became the target of protests after disruptions to the Paris leg of the Olympic torch relay. Many in China harbour resentment of Japan's 1931-45 occupation of parts of the country.

Instead, police should collect evidence during protests and eventually deal with locals in accordance with the law, it said, adding that foreign reporters would be targets of surveillance, it said.

"Foreign reporters will no longer be prohibited from filming on Tiananmen Square," a law enforcement official told Reuters, requesting anonymity to avoid repercussions for speaking to a foreign reporter.

China's state news agency Xinhua said journalists need to apply 24 hours beforehand to take pictures on the square -- the center of student-led demonstrations for democracy crushed by troops in 1989.

"This kind of thing is good news if it is enforced," said Bob Dietz of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "What we've seen in the past is that the central government has instituted rule changes and then when it comes for them to be implemented on the ground local authorities don't follow through."

In Kashgar, where a bomb attack killed 16 policemen on Monday, baton-waving security forces chased two Reuters reporters down the street.

Japan's Kyodo news agency said paramilitary police detained and beat up two Japanese journalists in the restive northwestern city, some 3,000 miles west of Beijing.

A source with ties to the leadership said China in a policy change will no longer insist on a "peaceful" Olympics with no untoward incidents.

"Instead of preventing things from going wrong, the focus will now be on how to deal with things when they go wrong," the source told Reuters, requesting anonymity.