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China Breaks Promise of Unfettered Internet at Olympics

China has sparked criticism by blocking access to controversial Web sites ahead of the Olympic Games, despite promises to provide open access. The IOC said it knew some sites would not be accessible during the Games.

Internet censorship symbol

The words "impossible to display" reportedly appeared when opening forbidden Web sites

International news Web sites, including Deutsche Welle, the US broadcaster Radio Free Asia and the Chinese version of the BBC, as well as Amnesty International were among those blocked in China this week, just before the start of the Olympic Games, media organizations reported Wednesday, July 30.

Human rights organizations that have been critical of the situation in the host country, like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, were also affected by the censorship, as were Web sites belong to the Free Tibet movement and the Buddhist-inspired spiritual movement Falun Gong, which was banned in China in 1999.

Upon winning the bid to host the 2008 Summer Games, China had pledged to provide media with unrestricted access to the Internet and the same freedom to report as they had enjoyed at previous Olympics.

IOC knew censorship was coming

IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies said Olympic officials had been repeatedly told in talks with the Beijing Organizing Committee (BOCOG) that some Web sites would be unavailable for the 20,000 reporters covering the Aug. 8-24 Games.

"The IOC holds regular discussions with BOCOG on providing the media with the kind of Internet access and facilities they need to report on the Games," Davies told the AFP news agency. "They have always made clear that some websites would be an issue, and we're working with them to ensure the media face the minimum possible restrictions."

The chairman of the International Olympic Committee's press commission, Kevan Gosper, said he was "disappointed" that the Chinese authorities were blocking Web sites deemed sensitive, but added that the IOC "can't tell the Chinese what to do," according to a report in the South China Morning Post on Wednesday.

Falun Gong activists stage a protest to raise awareness of human rights

Falun Gong was banned in China in 1999 and its members have since been persecuted

"I have also been advised that some of the IOC officials had negotiated with the Chinese that some sensitive sites would be blocked," the Hong Kong-based newspaper quoted Gosper as saying. "If you have been misled by what I have told you over the months and years about there being free Internet access during the Games, then I apologize."

Reporters Without Borders criticized the IOC for not hindering the Internet blockages and expressed concern that more cases of censorship would arise during the Olympics.

"Reporters Without Borders condemns the cynicism of the Chinese authorities, who have yet again lied, and the IOC's inability to prevent this situation because of its refusal to speak out for several years," the group said in a statement. "This situation increases our concern that there will be many cases of censorship during the games."

The Paris-based media watchdog also published a handbook for journalists covering the games detailing ways of getting around the government firewalls, locking computer files and finding translators.

China calls Internet access "sufficient"

Olympic press center in Beijing

Journalists will have access to the the Web sites they need, says China

The Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee rejected criticism by journalists and defended the censorship. Committee spokesman Sun Weide said Internet access provided at the Games' main press center was "sufficient."

"The coverage of the Games is not affected," he said.

In particular, Sun justified blocking access to the Falun Gong Web sites, calling the organization "an evil, fake religion which has been banned by the Chinese government."

Olympic Watch, a Prague-based human rights organization set up in 2001 to help keep the Chinese government accountable for its Olympics-related human rights pledges, on Wednesday issued a statement harshly criticizing the continued censorship of Internet access for journalists and athletes in Beijing.

Olympic Watch also said the IOC's so-called silent diplomacy strategy has proven to be ineffective.

"If the International Olympic Committee wants to save any credibility it has left at this point, it must discontinue its demonstrably ineffective strategy of silent diplomacy and publicly call for an end to censorship in China, and for the release of all those Chinese citizens who have been persecuted in relation with Olympics," the group's chairman Jan Ruml said in the statement.

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