Civil Liberties

Convenient, Sufficient, and Censored


Contrary to assurances from the International Olympic Committee, The New York Times reports, journalists covering the Beijing games will not have uncensored access to the Internet:

Since the Olympic Village press center opened Friday, reporters have been unable to access scores of Web pages—among them those that discuss Tibetan issues, Taiwanese independence, the violent crackdown on the protests in Tiananmen Square and the Web sites of Amnesty International, the BBC's Chinese-language news, Radio Free Asia and several Hong Kong newspapers known for their freewheeling political discourse….

Mr. Sun [chief spokesman for the Beijing Olympic organizing committee] said foreigners using the Internet in China would be subject to the same laws under which censors blocked access to a wide range of Web sites thought to be detrimental to stability. China has long maintained that its laws governing Internet access do not amount to censorship and are similar to restrictions on pornography or gambling sites in many countries.

As I suggested in my recent reason article about online gambling, that comparison, though obviously self-serving, should not be lightly dismissed. The U.S. government's heavy-handed attempts to stop Americans from visiting sites where they can play poker or bet on sports undermine its moral authority in attacking other countries' Web restrictions.

As far as Chinese officials are concerned, foreign journalists' Internet access is "convenient and sufficient" for covering the Olympic games. In their view, such coverage does not include the concerns that critics of the Beijing Games have raised about China's human rights abuses. While visiting journalists were dismayed to find that they "were unable to gain direct access to an Amnesty International report detailing what it called a deterioration in China's human rights record in the prelude to the Games," the Chinese government is dismayed at their dismay. Needless to say, from the government's perspective, talking about the Web censorship imposed on reporters covering the games is also not part of covering the games. Nevertheless, for a regime eager to be perceived as civilized and enlightened, denying the news media unfettered Internet access was probably not the savviest P.R. move.

A few years ago, after my own encounter with China's Internet filtering, I pondered the strange, half-free condition of Chinese Web surfers. In a 2002 column, I suggested that French censors could learn a thing or two from their Chinese counterparts.