China took a further step toward opening itself to the world, announcing Friday that an easing of restrictions on foreign journalists enacted for the Olympics would become permanent. Premier Wen Jiabao signed the decree, which took immediate effect, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao at a late-night news conference.
Under the new regulations, which had been anticipated by journalists, foreign reporters would not be required to get government permission to travel within the country or to interview Chinese citizens.
"This is not only a big step forward for China in opening up to the outside world, it is also a big step for further facilitating reporting activities by foreign journalists," Liu said. China had loosened its decades-old controls on foreign reporters _ which included requiring government permission for all interviews and travel _ at the beginning of 2007. The changes were part of the communist country's pledge to increase media freedom, which helped Beijing's bid to host the 2008 Olympics.
The Olympic rules were set to expire at midnight Friday. China had refused to say earlier whether it would extend the rules past that deadline.
Even under the relaxed rules, foreign journalists and monitoring groups complained that Chinese authorities still harassed and occasionally detained journalists in the run-up to the Olympics. During the games, there were multiple instances _ at least 30 cases _ of reporting interference, according to the FCCC. The rules replace regulations on foreign media coverage originally established in 1990, after the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.
However, journalists will still not be allowed to travel to the restive region of Tibet and other restricted areas without getting special permission from local authorities, Liu said. In addition, China's tight grip over domestic journalists remains unchanged, with all state media remaining under government control. Chinese citizens are also not allowed to work as journalists for foreign media organizations.
However, Liu said the country's leaders are moving toward reform in many different areas, including the press.
"It's China's basic policy to reform and open up. Why should we keep opening up? Because we need to have better understanding, mutual understanding with the world. An important part of this is the press," Liu said.
"Opening up is very important. I believe in the past year and a half, China has improved a lot in this regard, and I believe it will do an even better job in the future," he said.
Liu said the regulations would be clearly explained to local governments as well as public security agencies, with continued training and workshops.
"I am confident that this new regulation will be implemented faithfully and soundly," he said. "Still, there is a process, and we need your constructive cooperation so this regulation will be implemented well.
The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China welcomed the decision to extend the Olympic reporting rules.
"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 new rules. The easing of controls for foreign journalists should not be achieved at the expense of putting more pressure on local sources," he said.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists also said the announcement was good news but cited implementation problems. "China has already violated the new travel guidelines in Tibet and in Sichuan, and has stifled foreign reporters trying to cover the ongoing public health scandal of tainted milk products," CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said.
"And it is common practice for security personnel to question people who are seen talking with foreign reporters. We also believe these guidelines should be extended to Chinese journalists," Simon added.
Similarly, Lucie Morillon, Washington director of Reporters Without Borders, said foreign journalists "are better off today than before these rules were applied. Everything now is a continuation of the rules they got used to this past month ... even if the rules were violated on numerous occasions." But she also called the move by China "a missed opportunity because the end of the temporary regulations should have been the opportunity to introduce rules granting real freedom of movement, including in Tibet, and freedom to interview people, especially officials, combined with protection for the confidentiality of journalists, communications and sources."
"Another issue is the fate of Chinese journalists and interpreters who are employed by the foreign press, and their situation is very precarious, and in the long run, we would like to see more freedom for Chinese reporters and the end of official censorship," Morillon said.