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  • Op Ed - Blackout Blues in Beijing


    Just when I thought the road to the Beijing Olympics might see a few less twists and turns on the way to August 8, 15 seconds of blacked-out video on CNN interrupts my reverie.

    Just as Hein Verbruggen assures journalists from the world’s top news agencies and publications that internet sites will be freely delivered with no sites blocked -- “full stop”, he said -- the clumsy hand of a Chinese TV censor delivers a blow to the Verbruggen bravado the very next morning.

    And it had to happen on a sterling day in Beijing, a beaming sun dispelling any notion that air pollution could be a problem in this city. The sun shines on the good-looking venues and Beijingers flock to makeshift observation points to marvel and snap images by the thousands each day, posing with the Water Cube or Bird’s Nest looming behind. Their pride for these new landmarks of Beijing is a vibe that is easy to sense walking around the crowd of picture-takers. There is so much good taking place in this city.

    And then there are dumbfounding examples of where China lags, weighed down by ponderous rules such as censorship of foreign news channels when the content reflects poorly on China.

    But the latest example -- blacking out mention of a protest in Istanbul during the torch relay stop -- is ever more poignant because it involves the Olympics.

    Around half a dozen protestors broke away from a larger group protestors representing Uighurs, an ethnic minority in western China. They tried to block the route of the relay and were arrested, reported CNN. The newscast showed a photo from a distance of the protestors being pushed away.

    Not much to see, not much of a commotion. But it was truly part of the news of that torch relay stop and worth reporting.

    (Two asides: protestors are asking for trouble and may lose support for their cause when they try to block the torch relay. Second, the appalling lack of outreach to media from BOCOG and torch relay sponsors Coca-Cola, Samsung and Lenovo leaves a black hole of non-information that will be easily filled by news about protestor antics.)

    My opinion about the newsworthiness of the Uighur protests is obviously not shared by the bureaucrat who had his or her finger on the button of the blackout box. But it wasn’t a quick reaction. Seconds elapsed, plenty of time to see the graphic and a torch relay protest headline and to hear the first line or two of the story that really said it all. Then a jump to black and no audio, for as long as this detrimental-to-public order reportage rolled on. And it happened three times in a 90-minute period Friday morning.

    But in these same newscasts, a full-blown three-minute report from CNN on the sentencing of human rights activist Hu Jia is seen without interruption. Hu is expected to serve three years in jail for his criticism of human rights in China. His case is drawing international attention and pleas for his release.

    I don’t understand the logic: maybe China wants the world to know the streets of Beijing will free the streets of human rights activists in time for the Games the way some cities try to find new places for homeless people to go. Meanwhile, a torch relay protest is seen as a greater challenge to Chinese authority?

    In any case, censoring coverage of an innocuous torch relay stunt should serve as notice to a trusting IOC that more serious stuff involving the Olympics may not be off limits to Chinese censors.

    Chinese censorship of CNN and BBC would seem to put a real dent in the IOC’s expectation of an unfettered internet. So too may be the belief that a continuous live signal from Tiananmen Square produced by the Beijing host broadcaster will never be interrupted.

    Verbruggen says the press freedoms needed by the journalists covering the Games will be enforced under the Host City Contract between the IOC and Beijing signed in 2001. We hope he has the lawyers needed to keep the pact intact.

    A western businessman tells me that in China, once the contract is signed, the negotiations begin.

    Op Ed is a weekly column of opinion and ideas from Around the Rings founder and editor-in-chief Ed Hula. Comments, as well as guest columns are welcomed: