I don’t envy journalists from around the world who are entering China to cover the Beijing Olympics, held February 4 to 20. Perhaps never in history have the rules of the road for covering the games been so murky and the potential dangers so great for journalists who step over an as-yet-undefined red line that could provoke retaliation by the touchy, highly nationalistic, Chinese hosts.
Will reporters follow well-honed instincts, report the news, and face possible punishment from Chinese officials, even expulsion from China? Or will they stick to feel-good coverage, curb their tongues, compromise professional integrity, and potentially lose credibility among viewers and readers?
Traditionally, sports journalists are some of the best reporters and storytellers in the business. They delve into the personal stories behind the amazing performances of elite athletes. They make them into real people we can relate to — at a distance, of course. But those real people have feelings and views. Out of the nearly 3,000 athletes expected to compete in the games, it’s fanciful to imagine that all of them will stay silent about the human rights tragedy taking place all around China. Or that journalists will fail to report it. Or that journalists will all, unanimously, ignore the widely reported human rights abuses in China as an essential backdrop to the games. What if athletes complain about the venues, management of the games, or even the food or accommodations?
The Beijing Organizing Committee cast a shadow over the games on January 18, when Yang Shu, deputy director general of international relations for the Committee, said in a news conference that “Any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment.”
The remark was aimed at the athletes, but it has implications for journalists too, who were previously warned by a foreign ministry spokesperson that they must comply with Chinese “laws and regulations,” which are vague and flexible, according to Reuters.
In theory, total press freedom is guaranteed for the international press in the “bubble” of the Olympic village. According to the IOC contract with Beijing: “There shall be no restrictions or limitations on (a) the freedom of the media to provide independent news coverage of the Games and Paralympic Games as well as related events, and (b) the editorial independence of the material broadcasted or published by the media.” Yet, how difficult would it be for Chinese authorities to declare that a journalist’s report violated Chinese law? And what would the International Olympic Committee, not known for a strong backbone, do about it?
China has not been shy, or especially secretive, about its treatment of critical journalists. CPJ counted at least 50 journalists in jail last year in its annual census of imprisoned journalists, making China the biggest jailer of journalists in the world for the third year running. It has forced the closure of independent news outlets in Hong Kong, in blatant violation of earlier commitments. It has continued to harass and restrict international journalists who are stationed in the country, arrested local staff or forced others to be fired, and chased many reporters out of the country. As the Foreign Correspondents Club of China put it in its annual report on working conditions, released on January 31: “The Chinese state continues to find new ways to intimidate foreign correspondents, their Chinese colleagues, and those whom the foreign press seeks to interview, via online trolling, physical assaults, cyber hacking, and visa denials.”
In an earlier era, China might have been shy about beating up on athletes or the press—literally and figuratively—while under a global spotlight, such as the Olympics. But by some accounts, China is not aiming to show compliance with international standards of human rights and press freedom. Rather it wants to show the world who is in charge. And it has a host of measures it could take against journalists ranging from blocking access to competition venues or press conferences, to blocking communication, to expulsion from the country. Nothing could be easier, or less transparent, than conveniently finding that a troublesome journalist has tested positive in the required daily COVID test, or forcing quarantine for alleged exposure to the virus, as journalists stationed in China suspect is already happening, according to the FCCC report.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign affairs did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
With the country’s sweeping digital and human surveillance apparatus, authorities are positioned to monitor journalists. University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab rang alarm bells about the required app aimed at tracking COVID-19, MY2022, pointing out a “devastating flaw” in which voice audio and encrypted files shared via the app can be compromised; according to tech news site Protocol, the flaw has been fixed but Citizen Lab also lost access to its MY2022 account for further research.
Yet China’s abysmal human rights record is part of the story, whether athletes talk about it or not. A recent feature in Bloomberg Businessweek, for example, found it noteworthy that Chinese-American superstar freestyle skier Eileen Gu, who grew up in the U.S. and is competing for China, has maintained studious silence about China’s human rights abuses, including its alleged genocide inflicted on millions of Uyghur Muslims.
We can expect more such coverage, no matter what the athletes do. And the Chinese hosts of the games won’t like it. Who will first test the limits? How much risk is it worth taking to get the story? Personally I hope journalists won’t be intimidated and will fully report the story. But that’s a tough choice that they must make for themselves. And it’s a key part of the Olympics drama that will play out away from the ski slopes or skating rinks.