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IOC official feels like ‘fall guy’ in Web scandal

An Olympic official said Thursday he felt like the “fall guy” after promising reporters at the games they would have uncensored Internet access.
China Olympics Internet Blocked
Foreign journalists work inside the Main Press Center (MPC) in Beijing, Thursday, July 31. Olympic organizers are backtracking on another promise about coverage of the Beijing Games, keeping in place blocks on Internet sites in the Main Press Center and venues where reporters will work. Andy Wong / AP
/ Source: news services

An Olympic official said Thursday he felt like the “fall guy” after promising reporters at the games they would have uncensored Internet access, only to find that the Chinese had blocked certain Web sites.

Kevan Gosper, the press commission head of the International Olympic Committee, also said he suspects the IOC leadership probably knew about the change.

Gosper said he was startled to find out earlier this week that Web sites for Amnesty International or others dealing with Tibet, the 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square or the spiritual group Falun Gong would be blocked to reporters at the Olympics Main Press Center in Beijing.

China’s communist government routinely filters its citizens’ access to the Internet. But for months Gosper, IOC President Jacques Rogge and others have publicly said Beijing agreed to unblock the Web during the games, and they touted the shift as a sign of the Olympics’ liberalizing effect on China.

“I have to accept that I appear to be the fall guy and may be the fall guy,” Gosper said in an interview with AP Television News.

He also told Reuters that both he and the international media had been taken by surprise that some politically sensitive Web sites had been blocked.

"It's learning of it at almost the last minute that I think is destabilizing the international media and certainly embarrassing for me, as up till 48 hours ago I was insisting it would be free and uncensored Internet access," he added.

“I suspect an agreement has been reached, or an understanding has been reached,” Gosper said. “It may well have been done by the executive board, done in another place by very senior people in the IOC. It may have taken into consideration new circumstances in this year leading up to the games where there has been quite a lot of trauma around China, and within China.”

Gosper was referring to deadly riots in March in Tibet, followed by chaotic protests on international stages of the Olympic torch relay. On May 12, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake struck southwestern China, killing just under 70,000 people.

“I would be surprised if someone made a change without at least informing” Rogge, Gosper said. “But I really do not know the detail. I only know the ground rules on censorship have changed but have only been announced here. It must have related to a former understanding to which I was not a party.

“This certainly isn’t what we guaranteed the international media and it’s certainly contrary to normal circumstances of reporting on Olympic games,” added Gosper, a long-serving IOC member from Australia.

Gosper said he first learned of China’s backtracking on Internet access when Beijing organizing committee spokesman Sun Weide announced Tuesday that journalists would have only “sufficient” — not unrestricted — access to the Internet.

He said the local organizers BOCOG's failure to inform media beforehand that this would not happen was not good enough.

"We've noticed that the words being used by BOCOG have changed in recent months from 'uncensored' to what is more like 'convenient and timely', or 'convenient and available'. These are quite different words," he added.

"Nevertheless, no one has come out publicly and said on behalf of BOCOG or the IOC 'sorry, but there are certain Internet websites which are blocked'," Gosper said. "I think they could have done better."

BOCOG is responsible for directly running the Beijing Games under the auspices of the IOC, which sets general policy. The organizing committee of an Olympics would generally work hand-in-hand with the IOC.

Since the decision to continue blocking Web sites was announced, Gosper said he has felt “a bit isolated” within the IOC and was surprised at being left out of the loop.

Asked what he would say to Rogge when they meet, Gosper replied: “I’ll keep that to myself until I see Jacques.”

Rogge arrived in Beijing on Thursday, but declined to speak as he left the airport.

IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies linked some of the problems to misunderstandings.

“We’re working with the organizers to understand what the issues are here,” Davies said. “There has been quite a lot of confusion.”

The issue is sure to persist during five days of IOC meetings ahead of the Aug. 8 opening of the Beijing Games.

BOCOG spokesman Sun Weide said censorship would not prevent journalists from reporting the Games, though he acknowledged there would be no access to some websites. BOCOG consistently assured journalists ahead of the Games that they would have normal access to the Internet.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said his government stood by Olympics reporting rules promising to ease restrictions on foreign journalists.

"Our determination to enforce these regulations is staunch," spokesman Liu Jianchao told a regular news conference. "As for how the International Olympic Committee understands these regulations, that's its own affair."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.