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Freedom vs the great firewall

world Updated: Aug 18, 2008 12:26 IST
Reshma Patil
Reshma Patil
Hindustan Times
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On Thursday, I opened the websites of international rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Just before the Olympic Games, both sites were unblocked in Beijing, after global pressure from the International Olympics Committee and the media compelled China to partially lift censorship.

But the great firewall of China immediately blocked the way when I clicked on the Amnesty International website’s link to thechinadebate.org, a forum to debate censorship, detention without trial or the death penalty. Even social networking site Facebook is sometimes inaccessible in Beijing.

In a rare phase in May, China had allowed the media largely unfettered access to its earthquake-hit southwest Sichuan province, at least until grieving parents began protesting publicly against poor quality construction of the toppled schools. In 1976, even the death toll was a secret after a major quake flattened Tangshan near Beijing.

But a week since the Olympics opened, the issue of media censorship has haunted Chinese authorities through incidents that questioned the government’s temporary rules effective last January, allowing media to travel freely and interview anyone who gives consent. President Hu Jintao said on August 1, that China will welcome foreign journalists and facilitate reporting before or after the Games.

On Wednesday, the Beijing-based Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) protested that police ‘roughed up and detained’ an accredited British journalist, as he covered a Free Tibet protest not far from the Olympic zone.

“John Ray of Independent Television News said he was pinned down by the police, dragged along the floor and pushed into a police van. The authorities confiscated his equipment, pulled off his shoes, filmed him and accused him of trying to unfurl a Tibetan flag, an accusation he denies,’’ said the FCCC statement. The FCCC president called for an investigation of potential illegal action and abuse of authority by the police.

From August 7-12, the FCCC received five reports of interference, including the temporary detaining of some journalists covering suspected terror attacks in northwest Xinjiang.

On August 10, after reports of security staff photographing journalists on assignment in Beijing, the International Federation of Journalists issued a statement demanding that Chinese authorities stop ‘snooping’ on the media.

The now-accessible Human Rights Watch website claims that a petitioner has been allegedly detained because he applied for permission to protest legally in one of the three protest zones set up in Beijng only for the Olympics.

After the Games close on August 24, it will be time to test the firewall again.