Wednesday, April 2, 2008

IOC Tells Beijing: Don't Block Internet

IOC Tells Beijing: Don't Block Internet

By Stephen Wade

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Beijing - The Internet must be open during the Beijing Olympics. That was the message a top-ranking International Olympic Committee official delivered Tuesday to Beijing organizers during the first of three days of meetings - the last official sessions between IOC inspectors and the Chinese hosts before the games begin in just over four months.

Beijing routinely blocks Chinese access to some foreign news Web sites and blogs, a practice it has stepped up since rioting broke out over two weeks ago in Tibet.

Kevan Gosper, vice chairman of the IOC coordinating commission, said restricting access to the Internet during the games "would reflect very poorly" on the host nation.

"This morning we discussed and insisted again," Gosper said. "Our concern is that the press (should be) able to operate as it has at previous games."

Gosper said the Chinese had an obligation under the "host city agreement" to provide Internet access to the 30,000 accredited and non-accredited journalists expected to attend.

"There was some criticism that the Internet closed down during events relating to Tibet in previous weeks," Gosper said.

Laws that lifted most restrictions on foreign media went into effect Jan. 1, 2007. The rules are due to expire in October.

"I'm satisfied that the Chinese understand the need for this and they will do it," Gosper added.

When asked about Gosper's comments, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said China's "management" of the Internet followed the "general practice of the international community."

She acknowledged that China bans some Internet content, and said other countries did the same. She declined to say if the Internet would be unrestricted for journalists during the Olympics.

Gosper spoke after Hein Verbruggen, chairman of the inspection committee, addressed his Chinese hosts. Without being specific, Verbruggen noted that China's Aug. 8-24 games had become embroiled in controversy.

The unrest in Tibet - and China's response - has heightened calls for a boycott or a partial boycott of the games. This comes in the wake of worries over Beijing's polluted air, and calls for China to increase pressure on Sudan to end fighting in Darfur.

The Darfur issue prompted Hollywood director Steven Spielberg to step down as an artistic adviser for the opening and closing ceremonies.

The torch relay, which left Beijing on Tuesday for Kazakhstan and a monthlong global tour, is likely to draw protests and blemish an event Chinese organizers had hoped would generate positive images of the country.

"Clearly in recent times more than ever, the Beijing Games are being drawn into issues that do not necessarily have a link with the operation of the games," Verbruggen said. "We're all aware the international community is discussing these topics, but it is important to remember that our main focus during these meetings is the successful delivery of the games operations."

The IOC has refused to speak out against China's actions in Tibet, saying it is a sporting body, not a political one. It has maintained the Beijing Olympics "are a force for good" in opening up the country.

Liu Qi, president of the organizing committee, told Verbruggen the preparations were in the "final stage" but suggested the hosts would not let up.

"There's a saying in China that if you want to walk 100 steps - though you have walked 90 - you have finished only half the journey. We still have 10 steps left, and those 10 are very critical to the whole journey."

The People's Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, warned in an editorial Tuesday that troubles lie ahead in the four months before the games.

"With the opening of the games approaching, the burden on our shoulders is heavier and the task tougher," it said. "We must keep a clear head, improving our awareness of the potential dangers, and bravely facing all the difficulties and challenges."

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