China plunges into new controversy

Beijing, July 30:

The Beijing Olympics were plunged into another controversy as China announced a backflip on Internet freedoms for the thousands of foreign reporters covering the Games.

China’s decision to reverse a pledge on allowing unfettered web access proved an embarrassment for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which had repeatedly said foreign press would not face any Internet curbs in Beijing. It was also the latest in a long line of issues to have tarnished the run-up to the Olympics, which start on August 8, following controversies over pollution, human rights and terrorism threats.

Beijing Olympic organising committee spokesman Sun Weide triggered the latest public relations flare-up when he confirmed foreign reporters would not have access to some sites deemed sensitive by China’s communist rulers. “During the Olympic Games we will provide sufficient access to the Internet for reporters,” Sun said. However “sufficient access” falls short of the complete Internet freedoms for foreign reporters that China had promised in the run-up to the Games.

Sun specified sites linked to the Falungong spiritual movement, which is outlawed in China, as ones that would remain censored for the foreign press at Olympic venues. He did not identify any others but reporters trying to surf the Internet at the main press centre for the Games on Wednesday found a wide array of sites deemed sensitive by China’s rulers to be out-of-bounds.

These included sites belonging to Tibet’s government-in-exile and Amnesty International, as well as those that had 1989 Tiananmen massacre information.

The head of the IOC’s press commission, Kevan Gosper, said he would take the matter up with Chinese officials. “I will speak with the Chinese authorities to advise them of the restraints and to see what their reaction is,” he said.

Australian Olympic team chief John Coates, who is also an IOC member, expressed frustration

with China’s Internet about-face, pointing out that the Chinese authorities had gone back on one of their “key” Olympic promises. “It certainly is disappointing... I think it’s a matter that the IOC will take seriously,” Coates told reporters.

The South China Morning Post quoted Gosper as saying that the IOC knew that some sites would be blocked, and apologised that the foreign press had been misled. “(Recently) I have also been advised that some of the IOC officials had negotiated with the Chinese that some sensitive sites would be blocked,” Gosper told the paper.

“If you have been misled by what I have told you about there being free Internet access during the Games, then I apologise.” Gosper said he was disappointed by the developments, according to the South China Morning Post. “But I can’t tell the Chinese what to do.”

Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based press freedom group, said it was surprised the IOC had kowtowed so easily to China’s leadership over web access. “When China applied to host the Games they promised total press freedom and that must include Internet access,” said Vincent Brossel, the group’s Asia Director.

Messi to go to Beijing

MADRID: Barcelona striker Lionel Messi says he will defy his Spanish club’s orders and join up with Argentina’s Olympic squad this week. The Argentina international has been at the centre of a tug of war between club and country with Barcelona trying to retain him for their Champions League qualifying tie in August. Messi, speaking before a FIFA judge declared that clubs were under an obligation to release their under-23 players for Beijing, said: “If FIFA

says I should be there then I’ll go without waiting for CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sport) ruling.” Barca have announced they will contest FIFA’s ruling to CAS. — AFP