Media faces bureaucratic hurdles before Olympics


NEW YORK -- With the Olympics just a month away, broadcasters are as jittery as the athletes who will gather to compete in Beijing.

A substantial number of producers and cameramen on the ground there say effective television coverage is threatened by the extensive regulations imposed by Chinese organizers. Delays in importing equipment and difficulties in obtaining approvals for live shots have led to criticism of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games, or BOCOG, citing disorganization and a lack of transparency that have left producers fretting over problems still unresolved at the eleventh hour.

"At this late stage, I wouldn't know a resolution (to bureaucratic inertia) if I saw one," said one Western network producer in Beijing.

Some chalk up the challenges to the usual logistical nightmare that comes with covering any Olympiad. Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics, compared the obstacles to the construction delays that Athens faced before the 2004 Games. In an e-mail response to an interview request, he said, "We've seen significant progress, and we feel confident that the issues raised are all being addressed and will be solved."

Manolo Romero, GM of Beijing Olympic Broadcasting, the International Olympic Committee's joint venture with BOCOG, still hopes to see BOCOG -- and the media regulators behind it -- deliver on the promises made in the Service Guide for Foreign Media Coverage of the Beijing Olympic Games, which was printed in May 2007 in English and Chinese.

"We are working in a country where no media operation of this scale has ever been seen," Romero said. "Some of the details in the guide are hard to translate and push through many layers of the bureaucracy."

Sandy MacIntyre, news director at Associated Press Television News, said that covering five World Cups and dealing with soccer's organizing body FIFA was "a walk in the park" compared to working in China.

In order to import direct-to-satellite uplink equipment to Beijing from APTN's London headquarters, MacIntyre filled out lengthy paperwork only to see the equipment held up at the airport. Producers were told upon their arrival that no Beijing officials had ever heard of the AP, one of the largest news organizations in the world.

To avoid such snafus, some broadcasters have opted to work with BMC, an affiliate of Beijing Television. "Logistically, working with BMC will be almost the same as having our own equipment, and it appears it has been given the BOCOG blessing," said Jaime FlorCruz, CNN's Beijing bureau chief. A 26-year veteran of China's capital, FlorCruz said he remains "cautiously optimistic" about Western journalists and China's media regulators reaching a working relationship in time for the Games.

Others eyed working with BMC more skeptically.

"It's a cost we can justify -- if it works," said a producer from another Western network working in Beijing. "If it doesn't, we'll have been sucked into flushing a lot of resources into a bureaucratic vortex for a Games we're not allowed to cover in full."

High on the list of requests from foreign broadcasters is permission to broadcast live from Tiananmen Square, the site of clashes between China's Communist government and ordinary citizens in 1989. Tiananmen risks being declared off limits to foreign broadcasters, whom Beijing accuses of politicizing coverage from that venue.

"Not shooting in Tiananmen would be like not shooting at the Acropolis or in front of Big Ben," said a Western network cameraman with more than a decade of work experience in Beijing.

But complications arise even in instances when a Chinese official tries to help. Tang Rui, the top foreign ministry official overseeing most foreign journalists who report in English, has been calling meetings with broadcasters' bureau chiefs and indicating some flexibility on foreigners' shooting live from China's most iconic spot.

However, of the five producers The Hollywood Reporter reached who spoke with Tang in mid-June, three said he had assured them that going live from Tiananmen would be OK, while two others received the opposite indication. One producer said it appeared as if Chinese authorities were playing foreign broadcasters against one another. "They scheduled meetings, then rescheduled them for a day earlier, without letting some of us know," the producer said.

Asked to clarify the situation, Tang said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was not the appropriate point of contact for foreign journalists wishing to cover the Olympics, but as a bridge to BOCOG, he does what he can for them. "As they know me, it's only natural for me to try to help," he said.

Still, veterans of Beijing newsgathering say that despite daily frustrations, covering China has in some respects become easier in recent years.

ABC News foreign editor Chuck Lustig said travel inside China has become much easier since restrictions were eased in January 2007. With the exception of covering Tibet, where ethnic unrest broke out in March, Beijing has lived up to its word. "We did have some limitations on what we were doing in Tibet, but I still think we were better off than if it would have happened several years ago," he said.

For Ted Koppel, one way to tell China's story ahead of the Olympics was to get far away from Beijing. He said he was welcomed with open arms when shooting "The People's Republic of Capitalism " -- set to air Wednesday on Discovery Channel -- in Chongqing, a provincial-level city of 31 million people.

"The government of Chongqing is very eager to get international attention, so they really wanted us to be there," Koppel said.

Some China scholars are not surprised by echoes of Beijing's former iron-fisted hold on foreign journalists and those who speak with them. Ashley Easrey, a Middlebury College professor, said there is little concept in China of the media as a check or a balance against the power of the state.

"Given that China is one of the rare countries with a non-democratic government to host the Olympics in recent decades, it's totally logical that we're seeing a clash between the remnants of a Leninist ideology and the modern society that has crept into some ranks of the leadership," Easrey said.

Regardless of whether Chinese organizers are seeking to control the coverage, Romero said that BOCOG is not playing favorites with the media by giving bigger outlets preferential treatment.

"It's the same for big broadcasters and small and has nothing to do with a pecking order," he said.

Nevertheless, tensions remain. Italian TV journalist Laura Daverio said that the BOCOG department charged with promoting Beijing's clean and healthy environment had repeatedly refused interview requests. She said she also was stopped by police recently while shooting a stand-up in front of one of the many digital clocks around the city counting down to the Olympics.

"The clock had no electricity and the cop wanted to know if this was going to go into my report," said Daverio, a correspondent for Italian broadcaster La7 who has been in Beijing for 12 years. "With this level of sensitivity, nothing related to the Olympics is untouched by politics."