October 18, 2008

China Extends Media Freedoms Enacted for Olympics

China added a last minute extension of media freedoms granted to foreign reporters on Friday, protecting the temporary rights initially given just for the Olympics.

Foreign journalists will be permitted to travel without restraint across the country for reporting, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said. The new rules were revealed just minutes before the old ones expired at midnight.

The new policy, accepted by Premier Wen Jiabaowas, was announced after the country remained mum over what would happen to the prestigious changes Beijing made to host the August Games.

The state relinquished control over foreign correspondents in January 2007, even though its policies on the domestic media stayed the same. However, talks over the continuance of the rules 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 said.

"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 continued.

The media freedoms are not indefinite. Tibet remains blocked to all foreigners, and journalists must apply for travel permits just like tourists. Additional areas could be labeled off limits, Liu said.

Chinese nationals are also prevented from operating as full correspondents for foreign organizations, and are limited to the position of assistants, he added.

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China accepted the extension, but the group also demanded more progress, including the defense of sources and the opening of limited 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 stated that China has labored continuously before the Olympics to encourage cautious officials to welcome foreign journalists.

"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 continued.

The government will also strive to guarantee that the local officials do not abuse the new standards, he said.

Despite China's enormous surroundings, it seemed to be business as usual 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.

Liu also highlighted a change that they are considering. Visiting journalists might not need the backing of a Chinese organization to receive a visa, and should only have to apply to an embassy or visa organization.