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MEDIA-AUSTRALIA: TV Network Denies Censor Role in China

Stephen de Tarczynski

MELBOURNE, Aug 6 2008 (IPS) - An electronic paper trail indicates that one of Australia’s leading television networks may be involved in dissuading foreign media in China against covering “forbidden” topics.

The contents of an e-mail sent in March of this year by the chief operating officer of the Beijing Media Centre (BMC) to Australian television’s Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) – revealed recently by SBS’s Dateline programme – appears to show that BMC explicitly warned foreign journalists not to report on sensitive topics.

“As I’m sure that you are aware, there are guidelines that have been put in place for international media coming to Beijing/China in 2008 and there are politically sensitive topics that the Government has asked the foreign media not to cover,” says the e-mail’s author, whose identity is yet to be confirmed, but who is being reported in Australian media to be BMC’s current chief operating officer, Gavin Romanis.

BMC is a joint-venture between Australia’s Seven Network Australia – one of Australia’s leading media companies and this country’s largest commercial television network -and the Beijing City government.

The Seven Network was well-positioned to enter into the joint venture given that the company’s chairman, Kerry Stokes, has been involved in operations in China since the 1990s.

BMC is located in Beijing’s Pangu Plaza, a prime position from which to broadcast as it overlooks Olympic venues such as the main “bird’s nest” stadium and “water cube” swimming centre. Media outlets such as CNN, the BBC and the European Broadcasting Union will utilise its facilities.

The BMC company was established due to the city government’s desire to use foreign broadcasting expertise.

The e-mail from the chief officer, dated March 4, notes that BMC “is a company that has as its majority shareholder as the Beijing Government” and “relies on the support and assistance of many [Chinese] government departments”.

The BMC chief officer writes that “if BMC was seen to be supporting an international programme whose intentions were to cover any of the 5 forbidden topics, the repercussions for BMC and its clients could be disastrous for the Olympic project and any further support for the remaining 26 years of the joint venture’’.

The e-mail also says that media wishing to use BMC’s facilities to report on sensitive issues will be denied access.

“Should you be coming to Beijing to cover Olympic related topics then we would be only too happy to assist you with your requirements, but should you be coming to Beijing to produce segments and stories on any of the forbidden topics, then I’m sorry, but we are not going to be able to offer our support this time around,” writes the company’s chief operating officer.

IPS contacted the alleged author of the e-mail to discuss the “forbidden topics” but Romanis refused to be interviewed, instead referring IPS to Seven Network’s spokesman, Simon Francis.

In an e-mail on Jul.31 to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Francis denied that the Seven Network was involved in censorship. “We are purely in a partnership as a facilities provider and facilitator in China,” he said.

In a follow-up e-mail to the ABC on Aug.1, Francis claimed ignorance regarding any forbidden topics. “We can only reiterate that we don’t know the ‘five forbidden topics.’ I suspect we didn’t know them when the e-mail was sent five months [ago] and we still don’t know,” wrote Francis.

Earlier, a co-director of BMC, Doug Fraser, also denied knowledge of the forbidden topics or that the company was involved in censoring stories. “Our broadcast base here is an independent broadcast base. We don’t provide any assistance on what stories you might want to cover. It’s up to the journalists themselves,” said Fraser.

Despite these denials from the Seven Network and BMC, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has expressed concern about the warning to foreign media against covering sensitive topics in China.

Projects director at the IFJ Asia-Pacific, Sam Grunhard, told IPS “that the reporting regulations issued in 2007 for all foreign journalists coming to report on the Games expressly allowed freedom for foreign journalists to report on any matters they saw as necessary to be reported on’’.

Grunhard says that “this suggestion [against covering sensitive topics] does fly in the face of those policies that the Chinese government has been making, in fact, right back to when the Olympic Games were granted’’.

In 2001, the Secretary-General of the Beijing Olympic Bid Committee, Wang Wei, said: ‘’We will give the media complete freedom to report when they come to China.”

But BMC’s e-mail is just one in a series of incidents which appear to indicate that foreign journalists do not have “complete freedom to report” in China.

Last week it was revealed that access to some internet sites were being blocked to journalists at the main media centre in Beijing, apparently due to a deal struck between the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Beijing Olympics Organising Committee (BOCOG).

The deal was a major embarrassment to the chairman of the IOC’s press commission, Kevan Gosper, who had said in March that journalists would be as free to operate in Beijing as they were at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

More recently, two Japanese journalists were allegedly assaulted by Chinese police after they went to report on this week’s attack which left 16 police dead in the far-western city of Kashgar in China’s restive Xinjiang province.

And a report released in late July by Amnesty International (AI) expresses concern regarding media freedom “despite the introduction of new media regulations increasing the freedom of foreign reporters to cover news stories in China.”

AI says that “concerns remain that authorities may seek to block broadcasting of anything deemed sensitive or inappropriate during the Olympic Games’’.

Cases of interference in the work of foreign journalists by authorities in China have been documented by the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC). The club says that there have been 270 cases of interference since Jan.1, 2007, when the regulation pertaining to “free reporting” of the Olympics took effect.

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