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New fears about Olympic press freedoms

The beating of two Japanese journalists by police in western China drew an official apology Tuesday, but Beijing also set new obstacles for news outlets wanting to report from Tiananmen Square in the latest sign of trouble for reporters covering the Olympics.
Beijing Olympics
A soldier patrols Tiananmen Square before the Beijing 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Security forces are stationed throughout Beijing ahead of the opening ceremonies for the Olympics on Aug. 8, 2008.Luca Bruno / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The beating of two Japanese journalists by police in western China drew an official apology Tuesday, but Beijing also set new obstacles for news outlets wanting to report from Tiananmen Square in the latest sign of trouble for reporters covering the Olympics.

The International Olympic Committee, which last week only partially succeeded in getting China to unblock some Internet sites after journalists raised a furor, said it would look into the new rules that require reporters to make appointments to do reports at Tiananmen.

The Japanese government and the Foreign Correspondents Club of China condemned the roughing up of the Japanese newsmen who were covering an attack by alleged Muslim separatists on police in Xinjiang province.

The separate incidents added to the impression that China is not living up to promises that foreign media would have unrestricted access during the games and has reverted to the tight controls that the communist government keeps over the press in normal times.

In the latest restriction, the Beijing city government said on its Web site that Chinese and foreign journalists who want to report and film in Tiananmen "are advised to make advanced appointments by phone." It said that will help ensure orderly newsgathering amid what are expected to be large crowds in the square on each day of the games, which start Friday.

The notice did not specify when the rule takes effect, nor did it say what would happen to news crews if they tried to report from the square without an appointment. Phone calls Tuesday night to the Beijing government spokesman's office seeking clarification rang unanswered.

IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies said the new arrangement did not match the committee's understanding of access to Tiananmen and promised to look into the situation.

"It wouldn't be how we understand the operation functioning. No doubt we can clear up the matter quickly," Davies said.

Surrounded by Beijing's top landmarks, the square is iconic for its symbolism as the seat of the communist government. But the expanse was also the focus of pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989 that were violently crushed by security forces, and officials keep a close watch on it.

A television executive said access to Tiananmen remains an issue even for TV companies that have paid tens of millions of dollars or more for the rights to broadcast the games.

Construction was not finished on a platform for broadcasters to use at the square only three days before opening day and already scheduled live broadcasts were being canceled due to the delay, said the executive, who agreed to discuss the situation only if not quoted by name to avoid offending officials during negotiations over the snag.

Friction between Chinese officials and journalists deepened Tuesday after police detained and roughed up the two Japanese journalists who were sent to cover Monday's suspected terrorist attack on police in the Xinjiang region in China's far west.

Foreign affairs officials in the region said police had apologized to the pair and would pay for damage to their equipment and for medical checkups.

Shinji Katsuta, a reporter for Japanese broadcaster Nippon Television Network Corp., said he and Shinzou Kawakita, a photographer from the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper, were grabbed by police late Monday and held for about two hours at a security facility.

"My face was pushed into the ground, my arm was twisted and I was hit two or three times in the face," Katsuta said in a telephone interview broadcast by his station.

The Foreign Correspondents Club of China said Kawakita had described being surrounded by paramilitary police, lifted off the floor by his arms and legs, kicked and then pinned to the floor by an officer's boot on his face.

"This is utterly unacceptable any time. It's particularly reprehensible just days before the Olympics at a time when China has promised complete media freedom," said Jonathan Watts, the foreign correspondent club's chairman and a correspondent for the Guardian newspaper in Britain.

Japan's chief Cabinet secretary, Nobutaka Machimura, told reporters in Tokyo that the government planned to "lodge a strong protest" with China over the incident.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said the incident runs counter to China's promise to let reporters work freely before and during the Olympics. He urged China to "fulfill its Olympic bid commitments to increase access to information and expand freedom of the press."

Liu Yaohua, Xinjiang's top police official, told reporters Tuesday that the Japanese journalists had tried to enter a restricted area, China's official Xinhua News Agency said.

"The Japanese reporters violated the rules of China by forcing their way into a military area. The act was not well-justified, and they should accept the consequences," Liu was quoted as saying. "I, however, apologize to the reporters, as the top regional public security official, for the clash they had with the border policemen."