IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Broadcast access to Tiananmen still at issue

Broadcasters and the IOC are pushing China to keep its promises and open up Tiananmen Square to more hours of live coverage for the Beijing Olympics.Unfettered access to Tiananmen, site of a bloody crackdown on the 1989 democracy movement, is being used to gauge how far China's communist government will go in granting press freedom, which it promised seven years ago to help win the Olympic bid.In
/ Source: The Associated Press

Broadcasters and the IOC are pushing China to keep its promises and open up Tiananmen Square to more hours of live coverage for the Beijing Olympics.

Unfettered access to Tiananmen, site of a bloody crackdown on the 1989 democracy movement, is being used to gauge how far China's communist government will go in granting press freedom, which it promised seven years ago to help win the Olympic bid.

In an emergency meeting last week in Beijing with the International Olympic Committee and broadcasters, Chinese officials — after months of hedging and leaving the critical question unanswered — decided live broadcasting from Tiananmen would be limited to two time slots — 6-10 a.m. and 9-11 p.m.

Chinese officials also finally agreed to give hundreds of satellite trucks freedom to roam around the city and report, but a list of restricted areas is expected this week. And there are reports broadcasters will have to get permission 24 hours before filming from a location.

This comes after promises of open coverage, which was followed months ago by a reported ban on any live coverage.

"We have the words, it's in writing as well. We will just have to wait and see," said Tomoyo Igaya, senior program director for Japan's NHK Sports and head of the Japan consortium, an Olympic pool that represents NHK and five Japanese commercial broadcasters. "People say yes, yes, yes, but will people on site be saying no, no, no?"

With 3 1/2 weeks go before the games open Aug. 8, China's authoritarian government wants the Olympics to showcase the country's three decades to speedy economic progress. But the government fears the games could be a stage for activists set on embarrassing China over policies in Tibet and Darfur, religious and political freedom or the jailing of dissidents.

To avoid that scenario, China has cracked down on visas and security and thrown countless roadblocks in broadcasters' way.

"Chinese officials are aware that for a lot of the world, Tiananmen Square brings back memories of June 4 (1989) and what in the West is sometimes known as the Tiananmen Massacre — or the Tiananmen incident," said Susan Brownell, a visiting China expert from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

"Plus, you have Chairman Mao's (Zedong) portrait in Tiananmen, and I think that's a past they don't want in the foreground."

But that iconic square is exactly what every broadcaster, rights holder or not, wants to beam around the world — no matter what time of day.

Last week's decision leaves European broadcasters without a time slot for delivering live coverage from Tiananmen to the all-important evening news audience. China is six hours ahead of most of Europe, and seven hours ahead of Britain.

"Both slots are totally useless for us," Pardo said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Not so for rights-holder NBC, which has paid millions to air the games. The early morning time slot on Tiananmen suits the American network, which will be able to go live to its prime-time evening audience. Beijing organizers and the IOC also moved swimming and gymnastics finals to the morning, giving NBC live evening coverage back home.

Even so, NBC, like the other broadcasters, wants more.

A broadcast official who attended last Wednesday's meeting, who declined to speak publicly, said Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics, warned the Chinese that limiting time from Tiananmen could set a bad precedent in regard to press freedom.

The Associated Press obtained the minutes to the July 9 meeting in Beijing, attended by Beijing Vice Mayor Cai Fuchao, senior IOC member Hein Verbruggen and dozens of rights-holding broadcast officials, including Zenkel.

Several broadcasters attending confirmed senior IOC member Alex Gilady aggressively pushed Cai over the scant live air time from Tiananmen.

Gilady, a senior vice president of NBC Sports, confirmed in a telephone interview that he was pressing the Chinese for more time.

"I think as a representative of the IOC TV commission, I have to try and follow what the broadcasters want — and they want more time," Gilady said. "So we have asked for more. We will to see what the Chinese come up with."

Last week's agreement also prohibits broadcasters from bringing guests to Tiananmen Square for live interviews, allowing only "standup talent" to speak from the iconic venue. Taped interviews will be allowed, but only when security officials give permission.

"Why is Tiananmen limited to certain hours?" asked Sandy MacIntyre, director of news for AP Television News. APTN is the television arm of The Associated Press and a non-rights holder.

"This is not acceptable and is against the spirit of the Olympics, and the spirit of free expression that China signed up to in accepting to be hosts for the games," MacIntyre said.

Sun Weijia, the head of media operations for the organizing committee, attended the July 9 meeting, along with organizing committee executive vice president Wang Wei. It was Wang who promised the following while leading Beijing's bid in 2001: "We will give the media complete freedom to report when they come to China."

Sun declined to explain the reasoning for the six-hour limit at Tiananmen, referring the matter to another Beijing spokesman who did not attend the meeting.

"You know this was an internal meeting," Sun said. "I think if you would like to have more information, please contact a spokesperson from BOCOG. I was in the meeting, but I am not able to comment."

Verbruggen, who has worked closely with Chinese officials to prepare for the games, acknowledged the country's communist government had presented special problems.

"It (China) is a totally different culture that we in the Western world are not fully able to understand," Verbruggen said, according to the minutes. "It is another world, another process. We have known that it won't be easy. ... We have spoken about problems that might occur and bureaucracy was one. Another was freedom of the press."

In the four months since deadly rioting broke out in Tibet — triggering protests on the Olympic torch relay — China's government has used a divide-and-conquer-strategy among hundreds of broadcasters who'll attempt to cover the games.

It seems to be giving preference to rights-holders such as NBC. Rights-holders pay millions to broadcast from the venue, although non-rights holders also cover the games and focus on action away from the venues.

Several non-rights holders, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal, told of months of changing rules, police interference, repeated requests for licenses and permits and telephone calls going unanswered at a so-called "One-Stop Service Center" set up by Beijing organizers.

Others told of calls being answered, but only in Chinese — or calls being referred to another number, only to be referred back to the original number. Several said the endless bureaucratic run-around, a crackdown on visas and rising hotel costs, were discouraging many foreign journalists and sponsors from attending, which seems to be the government's intention.

Many reporters have already dubbed these the "All-China Games" due to the expected slump in foreign visitors, or the "Killjoy Games."

And if broadcasters don't get what they expect, some rights-holders have hinted at seeking monetary compensation. Pardo of the EBU cited the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, where he said broadcasters received refunds for inadequate lodging.

"We got money back in Torino because the services provided were no existent," Pardo said. "But here so far we don't have any proof the services are not going to be given. ... If we don't get the services, the reaction of the broadcasters can be unpredictable."