China extends media freedoms

Reporters allowed to travel more freely

BEIJING - China made a last minute extension of media freedoms for foreign reporters on Friday, enshrining rights originally granted only for the Olympics.

Foreign journalists will be allowed to travel freely across most of the country for reporting, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said at a news conference, unveiling the new rules just minutes before the old ones were due to expire at midnight local time.

The new regulations, approved by Premier Wen Jiabao, came after a day of resounding silence on what would happen to one of the high-profile changes Beijing made as part of its efforts to host the August Games.

The state relaxed controls over foreign correspondents from January 2007, although its grip on the domestic media did not ease. But talks on whether to allow the rules to continue beyond their inbuilt expiry date went on late into the night.

"Everyone knows the Olympic regulations expire today, so it was not late (for an extension) as long as it's before midnight," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told journalists.

"This takes the main principles and spirit of the special regulations for the Olympic period and fixes them in long-term rules and regulations," he said.

The media freedoms are not unlimited. Tibet is still closed to all foreigners and journalists have to apply for travel permits just as tourists do. Other areas may be designated off-bounds or temporarily closed after disasters, Liu said.

Chinese nationals will also still be barred from working as full correspondents for foreign organizations, and restricted to the role of assistants, he added.

The extension was welcomed by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China, but the group also called for further progress, from protection of sources to the opening of restricted areas.

"If properly implemented, we believe this will mark a step forward in the opening of China's media environment," said club president Jonathan Watts.

"We urge the government to ensure that police and local officials respect the spirit as well as the letter of the rules.

Liu said China had worked hard ahead of the Olympics to convince wary officials to open up to foreign journalists, who have more room to probe and publish than Chinese colleagues.

"We have organized extensive and thorough training over the past year and a half, to ensure that local governments and security departments had a good understanding of the regulations," Liu said.

"Now we have extended the Olympic rules I think it will be easier to implement," he said.

The government will also work hard to ensure they are not abused by local officials wanting to shut down their area after a disaster, he said. In China's vast hinterland, it had appeared to be business as usual earlier on Friday.

"There has been no change, the rules are still the same as for the Olympics," said Mr Zhou, a media official in Hebei province which has been in the spotlight for weeks because of a tainted milk scandal.

Another change Liu highlighted was that visiting journalists will not need the support of a Chinese organization to get a visa, and can simply apply to an embassy or visa organization.