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IOC tells China not to obstruct reporters

Aug. 14, 2008, 1:28 p.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) The International Olympic Committee urged China Thursday to allow foreign reporters at the Beijing Games to report freely after a British journalist trying to cover a protest was allegedly roughed up by police.

Meanwhile, activists complained that protest zones designated by Beijing organizers were set up as a way to catch dissidents - not let them speak out. At least one person who applied to hold a demonstration in one of protest parks was detained by police.

At its daily briefing, the IOC was peppered with questions about an incident the day before in which a British TV journalist said he was manhandled and dragged into a police van while trying to cover an unauthorized protest by activists pushing for independence for Tibet. Police have said they mistook him for a protester.

IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies said the committee disapproves of "any attempts to hinder a journalist who is going about doing his job seemingly within the rules."

"This, we hope, has been addressed. We don't want to see this happening again," she said.

Asked repeatedly if IOC officials are embarrassed that China was not living up to its promises, Davies would not answer directly, saying only that they are happy with the way China is running the sporting events.

In its bid to win the Olympics, China promised to loosen some aspects of its autocratic rule, including allowing the media to report freely and the unblocking of restricted Web sites for journalists.

It set up three protest parks, all well away from Olympic venues, in a gesture toward greater free speech.

But it said would-be protesters would have to apply for permission in advance. Almost a week into the Beijing games, there has been no sign of demonstrations at the parks.

Sporadic flare-ups in other parts of the city - involving handfuls of mostly foreign protesters who were quickly detained and deported - suggest the absence of demonstrations is not for lack of dissent.

At least one activist who tried get approval to organize a demonstration in Ritan Park, one of the three zones, has been detained by security officials, say activists, who suspect authorities are using the zones to bring potential troublemakers to their attention.

"It's clear to us that the protest zones are just a cynical public relations ploy on the part of the Chinese authorities," said Lhadon Tethong of the New York-based Students for a Free Tibet, which has held several unregistered protests around the games.

Her group never considered applying for permission to demonstrate in the parks.

"Sadly, I think the protest zones are just a trap at some level," she said.

At the IOC organizing committee briefing, vice president Wang Wei suggested critics were nitpicking. He called the protest parks "one step further for China to open up and I think it's (a) very good gesture."

But he said he had no information on the number of protest permits that have been granted, and security officials have refused to release the information.

To hold a demonstration in one of the parks, applications must be lodged with authorities five days in advance so officials can judge whether they would harm China's "national, social and collective interests," according to a government announcement in July. Applicants could expect a reply 48 hours before the requested rally time.

Human Rights Watch said this week, citing witness accounts, that Chinese activist Ji Sizun was bundled into a car outside a police station when he went to check on his application to protest official corruption. He has not been seen since, the New York-based group said.

Relatives of other Chinese activists, most of whom have spoken out against the destruction of neighborhoods to make way for development in Beijing without proper compensation, say they, too, have been detained during the games.

A Chinese blogger, warned last month to stay away from Beijing during the Olympics, said he was escorted to his hometown Thursday and told not to leave.

Zhou Shuguang, who uses the online name Zuola, said by phone that local officials picked him up in Fengmuqiao, near his hometown in central Hunan province, and "forced" him back home. Zhou, who said he had gone to visit his sister, said he was threatened when he initially refused.

Restating Beijing's official policy, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said Wednesday that China's citizens, "in accordance with the law, enjoy the freedom of speech and other kinds of rights."

Built in the 16th century around an altar that emperors used for sacrifices to the sun gods, Ritan Park is a sanctuary of manicured lawns, ponds and tree-lined pathways.

In the park Thursday, there were no protest banners, only one strung along a fence that read, "Welcome Olympic Games with joyfulness and construct a harmonious society," in Chinese characters and English.

"About protesting, I think Chinese people have experienced very little of this," said Sufang Hang, who was among a small group huddled under a traditional Chinese pagoda to escape the summer drizzle.

"I think foreigners might have more protests. I think Chinese people do not have the awareness yet. We don't know what there is to protest about."


Associated Press Writers Gillian Wong and Stephen Wade in Beijing contributed to this story.