<i>Journos come to grips with reporting restrictions</i>

01:43, Jan 31 2009

I almost started this column under a pseudonym just in case it comes back to bite me when I arrive in China next month for the Olympic Games.

One of the fears for journalists going to Beijing is that things we might normally do at home can get us arrested in China.

For instance, interview a Chinese national in the street without a proper form and you could be thrown in jail for up to 72 hours without anyone notifying your employer, your family or the New Zealand government. No vox pops then.

Write too many stories with words or phrases such as "Tibet", "human rights abuse" or "Falun Gong" and you can expect to be a person of interest for the Chinese secret service. China's surveillance experts will filter all outgoing emails for such key words which will be red-flagged and traced back to the laptop that generated them. And the GSM network can be slowed down to monitor outgoing phone call and texts as well.

The host nation has the capability to put surveillance on any, and every, journalist or broadcaster it wants. To get an idea of how much spying will be going on, you have to realise there will be more than 30,000 media in Beijing.

While Chinese officials say there are no restrictions when it comes to reporting on the Olympics, reporting on events outside the Olympics, such as human rights issues, will result in some sort of crackdown, even if it's a reminder of the rules in the form of a brief incarceration. And we have been warned that even members of an intensely patriotic public are capable of turning on any protester and meting out their own form of justice.

Advertisement

Nearly 100,000 police will be supplemented by paramilitary outfits, unspecified numbers of private security guards and the full force of the People's Liberation Army. But to top all that, China is also enlisting a "citizens' army" of up to 600,000 patriots and students; that's one for each of the expected 500,000 foreign visitors and 30,000 journalists. The citizens' army will monitor public places to watch for troublemakers. Half of the official 100,000 Beijing Olympic volunteers will also be on security duties.

One Olympic source told Melbourne's The Age newspaper: "If there's a demonstration it will be the local people who stop it because there will be a wave of patriotism and nationalism that will negate the effect of any foreign demonstrations."

The most closely guarded place will be Tiananmen Square, the revered but blackened heart of Beijing.

After an initial ban on live broadcasts from the mile-wide square, television networks have been granted a time slot, albeit a limited one, to broadcast from there.

The rest of the time it's off limits for media coverage with an intricate network of listening devices and cameras in place to guard it from western abuse.

Journalists who break the rules around Tiananmen Square can expect to be stripped of their accreditation and put on the first plane home.

A big question is what might happen to athletes who decide to make a protest. I doubt Mark Todd's "silent protest" in the equestrian event at Hong Kong will warrant a crackdown, but the games could get off to a spectacular start if Cadel Evans, the Australian cyclist currently leading the Tour de France, cops any backlash for displaying a "Free Tibet" T-shirt during a race in Belgium.

The IOC forbids athletes to make protests in accredited areas, but Evans has the Free Tibet organisation link on his website (www.cadel.com.au) and is selling T-shirts for the cause - all of which could see him targeted by offended Chinese nationals.

Simon Bradshaw, a campaign co-ordinator for the Australia Tibet Council, acknowledged that athletes making public statements about Tibet could "face consequences" but so could Evans' fellow Australians. As such we Kiwis have been briefed to learn the Mandarin for "I am a New Zealander" in order to distance themselves from any backlash against Australians.

Dave Currie, New Zealand's chef de mission, thinks it will take an "extreme" action to cop the attention of the PLA or the security forces, but Dave always looks on the bright side of life.

I'm a bit more cynical and all I've read and heard has me feeling a little queasy about what can be reported from these games. You'll get all the sports coverage you want, but not much more.

Sunday Star Times