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Beijing Olympics pose internet challenges

Claire Stocks | 09:46 UK time, Thursday, 3 April 2008

Freedom of information is already a recurring theme of this Olympics.

It’s something the IOC grappled with in one small form over the issue of whether to allow athletes to blog from the Games.

The main concern for the IOC was that of media rights – ie a blog could in theory be used to ‘cover’ the event as a journalist tool.

The way round this was to stipulate in new guidelines issued in February that: "The IOC considers blogging ... as a legitimate form of personal expression and not a form of journalism," and to allow bloggers only to do so from unaccredited areas.

This was followed by a report yesterday filed by Reuters which says that the IOC has relaxed its stance on internet reporting generally.

Restrictions used to stipulate that only media organisations which were accredited rights-holders could use material recorded within Olympic venues.

But the Reuters report said those rules had now been relaxed so that:-

'Bona fide' news organisations will be allowed to broadcast via the internet all or a portion of news conferences that take place in the Media Press Centre with a time delay of 30 minutes.

The report says the IOC has gone even further in Australia where internet sites will also be able to show short videos of the actual action through a deal with Seven Network.

"Under the deal, non-official sites will be allowed to show three minutes of Olympic events a day, in 60 second clips, but will have to "geoblock" their sites so they cannot be seen by Internet users outside Australia," said the report.

Internet surfers in Beijing

It’s also interesting to see the IOC attempting to put pressure on the Beijing government over lifting the internet firewall that exists in China.

China has said it will lift the "Great Shield of China" during the Games – not least so the thousands of journalists in Beijing will be able to do their jobs properly.

But officials have always been very vague on the subject.

There was something of a major step forward last week when the block on the BBC News website in China was lifted (though the Chinese government would never admit the block existed).

We’re excited about the fact that Chinese people are now able to share their views though our comment pages.

Of course, as BBC's Asia bureau chief Paul Danahar writes today in his piece on the lifting of the block and the challenges of reporting in China, many will not necessarily be big fans of the West – or indeed the BBC - and may well be their government’s best defence against the accusations which many human rights groups level against them…

However, as the level of debate about China’s hosting of the Games increases as we get nearer to 08/08/08 and the protests mount (for instance at this weekend’s torch relay in London), one wonders whether China will re-introduce the block.

One also wonders whether the restrictions will be lifted for English language-websites – but remain for Chinese-language sites (the block on the BBC site still apparently applies to its Chinese language section or apparently any links in Chinese).

In this way they could ensure the majority of the population will still have their view of the Games effectively censored.

According to a report from Agence France Presse, the issue of censorship was raised on Wednesday at a three-day meeting between the coordination commission and Beijing Olympics organisers.

Officials were apparently asked by journalists whether state broadcaster CCTV, which routinely delays live coverage of events by up to a minute, could effectively censor the Olympics coverage.

China's President Hu Jintao with the Olympic torch in Tiananmen Square

The AFP reported that CCTV's “live” coverage of the Olympic torch’s arrival in Tiananmen Square on Monday was delayed and that last week, CCTV cut away from the flame-lighting ceremony in Greece as protesters tried to disrupt a speech given by China's Olympic organising committee chief, Liu Qi.

Overseas censorship seems highly unlikely as CCTV has no role in international transmissions from the Olympics – this is handled by the host broadcaster, Beijing Olympic Broadcasting, a joint venture between Beijing Olympic Games Organising Committee (BOGOC) and the IOC.

Sun Weijia, director of media operations for BOCOG, told AFP: "There will be no delay from Beijing. The transmission signal goes out to international broadcasters as events unfold."

But there is presumably nothing to stop domestic footage being delayed or censored as it is relayed within China…

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