China drops some Internet curbs

Beijing, August 1:

China on Friday rolled back a few high-profile planks of its Internet censorship system in an apparent effort to defuse an embarrassing dispute over media freedom just days ahead of the Olympics.

Journalists arriving here to cover the Beijing Games have found that access to a wide array of Internet sites, including Western news organisations and human rights groups, were banned.

But after talks between the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Beijing authorities on Thursday, several sites were unblocked. The previously barred websites of human rights group Amnesty International and press freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders were easily accessible on the Chinese Internet system on Friday.

The BBC Chinese service and German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, similarly blacklisted previously, were also accessible. The lifting of Internet curbs appeared to go beyond Olympic venues, with AFP reporters able to consult those normally banned sites from an ordinary Internet portal.

Amnesty and Reporters Without Borders said their sites could also be viewed by ordinary Chinese elsewhere in Beijing and in other cities. However many sites were still blocked, including those linked to Chinese dissidents, the outlawed Falungong spiritual movement, the Tibetan government-in-exile and sites with information on the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. The easing of some curbs follows a week of controversy after China backtracked on a pledge to allow the more than 20,000 foreign reporters complete access to the Internet.

The IOC was embarrassed by China’s decision, after its president, Jacques Rogge, promised last month that foreign reporters would have unfettered Internet access. IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies welcomed the lifting of restrictions on some of the sites deemed sensitive. “It’s a good thing,” she said.

The IOC said it had pressed China to open up Internet access with the Beijing Olympic organising committee (BOCOG) and Chinese authorities.