BEIJING (AP) - China is relaxing decades-old restrictions on foreign reporters, announcing new regulations Friday that will give foreign media greater freedom to travel and report in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The regulations, which come into force Jan. 1, temporarily abolish onerous requirements that currently prohibit foreign reporters from travelling or conducting interviews, even with ordinary Chinese, without government approval. Under the new rules, only the consent of the interview subject is needed.
"It is crystal clear that as long as the interviewee agrees, you can do your reporting," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told reporters at a briefing on the new regulations.
The new rules mark a surprising step forward in addressing a major concern for the Olympic movement and international media: how China, with its penchant for heavy-handed policing and censorship, would deal with the 20,000 foreign media expected in Beijing for the Games.
"In general, this is progress in terms of liberalizing the conditions under which foreign journalists work in China," said Melinda Liu, president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China and Beijing bureau chief for Newsweek, the American news magazine.
Significant questions remain about China's reporting environment. China is the world's largest jailer of journalists, with 32 in prison as of Jan. 1. Police retain broad powers to halt coverage by reporters. Foreign reporters have been frequently detained for reporting on a range of topics, from AIDS epidemics in the countryside to protests by urban workers. The new Olympic regulations, as well, contain loopholes and expire on Oct. 17, 2008, a month after the Paralympics end.
In a sign of the severe limits on press freedom, a Beijing court upheld a three-year prison term for fraud Friday against Zhao Yan, a researcher for The New York Times. Zhao was arrested after the Times broke word on Communist Party political manoeuvring, though his case has been seen as retribution for his pre-Times career as a crusading investigative reporter.
Still, the new Olympics regulations underscore China's desire to use the Beijing Games as a coming-out party and show the world that it is drawing closer to international practices.
"They have understood how important it is to meet the standards of the Olympic Games," Kevan Gosper, a vice-chairman of the International Olympic Committee's co-ordination commission for Beijing, said in a telephone interview. "Over five years, everything that the Chinese said they would deliver they have delivered."
IOC officials have privately described arduous negotiations over media rules and credentials with Beijing Olympic organizers. At times, IOC officials have read aloud to Beijing organizers the promise they made in their bidding book for the Games: "There will be no restrictions on journalists in reporting on the Olympic Games."
Liu, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the government knows that, as with previous Olympics, reporters won't limit their coverage to sports. He broadly interpreted the new rules - which cover reporting on the Games "and related matters" - to give foreign media expanded licence.
"Foreign journalists will not limit their activities to the Games themselves. They will also cover politics, science, technology and the economy," Liu said. "The 'related matters' . . . actually expands the areas on which foreign journalists can report."
Liu acknowledged that implementation would not be friction-free. He said the Foreign Ministry, starting Friday afternoon, would begin briefing central and local government departments on the regulations and urged foreign journalists to contact his office when troubles occur.
Though officials should no longer question reporters as they travel in China, Liu said that police would still have the authority to intervene, especially during emergencies, protests and other incidents "that suddenly arise."
"They will not ask what you are doing there unless there are concerns in terms of public interest and social order," Liu said.
The new rules did not address the extent to which foreigners would fall under restrictions imposed on Chinese media. Separate rules under discussion by the government could ban reporting on some protests, public health epidemics and natural disasters and levy fines on offending reporters and their companies, a tool used by Singapore to try to cow foreign media.
Foreign broadcasters complain that satellite transmissions must currently go through state-run television, which sometimes censor reports. The Foreign Correspondents Club itself remains an illegal organization because of restrictive rules on licensing foreign industry associations. And the new rules are only temporary, raising the question of a jarring post-Olympics period.
"We welcome the new regulations," said the FCC's Liu. "However, we believe that the liberalization should be permanent, not temporary."