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Web Limits Eased in China for Journalists

August 3, 2008

By Andrew Jacobs

Juliet Macur contributed reporting.

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The Chinese authorities, bowing to criticism from Olympic officials, foreign journalists and Western political leaders, have lifted some of the restrictions that blocked Web sites at the main press center for the Summer Games, although other politically sensitive sites remained inaccessible Friday.

The government made no announcement about the partial lifting of its fire wall and it was unclear if the change would be temporary.

The International Olympic Committee sought Friday to counter statements by its top press official, who had suggested that committee negotiators had quietly acquiesced to the government’s restrictions.

Giselle Davies, a spokeswoman for the Olympic committee, said a misunderstanding had led to the contradictory versions of events, but she stressed that the committee had always been adamant about unfettered Internet access for the 20,000 foreign journalists covering the Games.

The loosening of restrictions, however limited, came after senior Olympic committee officials spoke with Chinese organizers Thursday and urged them to reconsider their decision to ban some politically provocative sites. Critics said even a partial ban violated the China’s pledge to provide uncensored Internet access to journalists, a pledge that helped Beijing to be awarded the Games.

Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Beijing organizing committee, declined to confirm whether there had been a change in policy. “We are fulfilling a promise to provide good working conditions for reporters covering the Olympic Games,” he said by telephone. “Internet access is sufficient and convenient.”

Access to sites normally blocked expanded throughout the day Friday. The first sites unblocked included those of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Radio Free Asia and the Chinese language service of the BBC.

By early evening, reporters at the press center could read about topics that have long been taboo here: Taiwan independence, jailed Chinese dissidents and the 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square.

Other sites, particularly those that mention Falun Gong, the banned spiritual movement, remained off limits.

Until now, the Chinese authorities had remained resolute that their Internet restrictions would not hamper coverage of the Games. And Sun has repeatedly said that visiting reporters should not expect access to Web sites containing information that is “in breach of Chinese law.”

T. Kumar, the Asia advocacy director for Amnesty International, said he was pleased that previously blocked sites were available, but he was skeptical they would remain so.

“We urge the International Olympic Committee to exert pressure on China so that those attending the Games – and ordinary Chinese citizens – can enjoy freedom of expression and movement,” he said.

Although the conflict over Internet access for journalists seems to have been defused for now, it remains unclear how the so-called misunderstanding between the International Olympic Committee and the Chinese government went unaddressed for so long.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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