A top European broadcast official says television coverage roadblocks in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics are a worrying sign for reporting freedom during the games.
Seven weeks before the Olympics open, television broadcasters are involved in a protracted battle with Chinese organizers over coverage away from the sports venues. This involves moving satellite trucks around the city, deploying equipment and clear rules about where TV cameras will be able to film.
The games are supposed to show China’s rising power, a celebration of the country’s new place on the world stage. However, China’s communist government seems to fear that roving TV cameras and 30,000 journalists might show protests by the spiritual sect Falun Gong, or athletes speaking out against China’s policies in Tibet or Darfur.
“What’s going on now might be an indication of what could happen during the games,” Fernando Pardo, head of sports for the European Broadcasting Union, said in a telephone interview Friday with The Associated Press. “If this happens during the games, the reaction of broadcasters could be unpredictable.”
Beijing Olympic organizing officials could not be reached for comment Friday, but repeatedly have promised that reporters will be free to do their jobs and cover the Olympics as they have at previous games.
International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said Thursday that Beijing organizers were close to resolving the issues.
“It will take a couple of days to finalize everything,” Rogge said in an interview. “Things are moving extremely well to resolve these issues.”
Pardo, who has covered the Olympics since the 1976 Montreal Games, said he has seen only limited progress since emergency meetings on May 29-30 in Beijing with top IOC, TV and Beijing organizing officials.
“I would love to agree with Mr. Rogge, but unfortunately I don’t see many signs to agree,” said Pardo, who said he was expressing the feelings of other TV executives involved in the games. “There are dark clouds on the horizon that keep me from agreeing.”
Pardo said the problems range from getting equipment through customs, being guaranteed access to venues such as Tiananmen Square, and being certain — once granted permission — that broadcasters will be free to report without being stopped by security officials requesting more documents.
“We saw big security problems in Moscow (1980), so this is not new for me,” Pardo said. “We have worked in communist regimes before. But here it is much more difficult than Moscow.
“We have been in very difficult situations on other occasions,” Pardo added. “Not everything has been rosy, but nothing like this occasion. We have only seven weeks before the games, and so many things are not settled.”
Pardo declined to use the word “crisis,” but said next week was critical as broadcasters begin moving operations to Beijing. He also said broadcasters could consider seeking financial compensation from the local organizing committee if promises were not met.
“If by any chance when we are there in the Olympics working and we cannot work freely and get services we need, this is the moment when we can ask for compensation,” Pardo said.
The EBU is one of the major rights-holding broadcasters and will employ a staff of 4,500 during the games. The EBU has 85 member broadcasters in TV and radio and covers Europe, North Africa and some countries formerly part of the Soviet Union.
Pardo said there were no clear answers about access to Tiananmen Square. After saying two months ago that live coverage would be allowed from the iconic venue, the Chinese have hedged their bets.
Pardo said Chinese officials are now offering a standup position for broadcasters in Tiananmen, but it’s unclear who will be able to use it.
“We don’t know who can access it,” he said. “Will guests for interviews have access to this area? Is this purely a broadcast area, or is it open? I want to have the possibility to bring whoever I consider necessary to this area to be interviewed. We don’t know who has the right to access.”
He said an EBU member told him that a film crew recently was given access to the Great Wall, but the crew was then asked to pay “an outrageous fee” to begin the filming. Pardo said it was not clear who asked for the money.
“Once you get the authorization you should be absolutely sure you can film freely and not have any problems. But this has not been the case,” he said.
Non rights-holders face many of the same restrictions over where they’ll be allowed to set up satellite trucks and high-tech equipment.
“I’m seeing promises of progress, but I’m not seeing the progress,” said Sandy MacIntrye, director of news for AP Television News. APTN is the television arm of The Associated Press and a non-rights holder.
“I know the IOC is pushing them (Chinese) to get this stuff done,” MacIntrye added. “They (Chinese) have promised progress and we wait to see if they live up to the promises.”
Murray Needham, the general manager of sports at Television New Zealand, voiced similar concerns. TVNZ is a rights holder.
“I think many of us knew in the back of our minds that a China-hosted Games could throw up some unique difficulties and so it has proved,” Needham wrote in an e-mail. “The broadcasting fraternity holds its breath in nervous anticipation.”
Shaken by protests on international legs of the Olympic torch relay following the outbreak of deadly rioting March 14 in Tibet, China’s authoritarian government seems to be backtracking on promises to let reporters work as they have at previous Olympics.
A law enacted 18 months ago gave reporters freedom to move around the country, although Tibet has been off limits. The law generally has worked, although reporting remains a problem in the provinces.
In recent months, the government has tightened visa rules, particularly targeting foreign students. The government fears many would side with activist groups if protests break out.
China is on the record promising unrestricted coverage.
In a 273-page guide to coverage for the foreign press, the introduction says: “The Chinese government will honor its commitments in the bid process ... to provide quality and convenient services to the media in accordance with international practice and the successful experience from previous games, so as to satisfy the demands of the media covering the Olympic Games in China.”