(AFP) – Aug 1, 2008
BEIJING (AFP) — China on Friday rolled back a few high-profile planks of its Internet censorship system in an apparent effort to defuse an embarrassing dispute over media freedom just days ahead of the Olympics.
Journalists arriving here to cover the Beijing Games have found that access to a wide array of Internet sites, including Western news organisations and human rights groups, were banned.
But after talks between the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Beijing authorities on Thursday, several sites were unblocked.
The previously barred websites of human rights group Amnesty International and press freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders were easily accessible on the Chinese Internet system on Friday.
The BBC Chinese service and German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, similarly blacklisted previously, were also accessible.
The lifting of Internet curbs appeared to go beyond Olympic venues, with AFP reporters able to consult those normally banned sites from an ordinary Chinese Internet portal.
Amnesty and Reporters Without Borders said their sites could also be viewed by ordinary Chinese elsewhere in Beijing and in other cities.
However many sites were still blocked, including those linked to Chinese dissidents, the outlawed Falungong spiritual movement, the Tibetan government-in-exile and sites with information on the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.
The easing of some curbs follows a week of controversy after China backtracked on a pledge to allow the more than 20,000 foreign reporters covering the Games complete access to the Internet.
The IOC was embarrassed by China's decision, after its president, Jacques Rogge, promised last month that foreign reporters would have unfettered Internet access.
IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies on Friday welcomed the lifting of restrictions on some of the sites deemed sensitive, such as that of leading human rights group Amnesty.
"It's a good thing," she said.
The IOC said it had pressed China to open up Internet access in talks on Thursday with the Beijing Olympic organising committee (BOCOG) and Chinese authorities.
"Following discussions the IOC held with BOCOG and Chinese authorities regarding difficulties experienced this week in accessing some web sites, the IOC is pleased to see that the issues are being quickly resolved," Davies said.
"The media should be seeing a noticeable difference in accessibility to websites that they need to report on the Olympic Games."
Amnesty and Reporters without Borders also cautiously welcomed the decision to unblock their sites.
"We welcome the news today that the authorities have lifted blocks on our website in the Olympics media venues and possibly elsewhere in Beijing," said Roseann Rife, deputy director for Amnesty's Asia-Pacific Programme.
"However, arbitrary blocking and unblocking of certain sites does not fulfil the duty to comply with international standards of freedom of information and expression."
BOCOG spokesman Sun Weide said some Internet sites remained blocked but insisted that China would guarantee "sufficient" Internet access to allow journalists to do their job.
"Some sites are blocked under Chinese law, but I do not have further information on which," he said.
Reporters Without Borders, which has described China as an "enemy of the Internet," said "this partial lifting of censorship shows that the Chinese government is not completely insensitive to pressure."
"If the whole world had mobilised as early as 2001, before the Games were attributed to Beijing, maybe the situation today would be different. Perhaps journalists would have been released before the opening ceremony," it said.
The watchdog says at least 50 people are being held in Chinese jails for online activities deemed inappropriate by authorities.
China's communist rulers are known to operate an extensive Internet censorship system that blocks information they view as improper, unhealthy or a threat to its rule.
Experts say more than 40,000 Internet police are employed to implement the so-called "Great Firewall of China."
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