Chinese Media Adjust to Easing of Rules

With Beijing preparing to host the 2008 Olympics, China appeased critics by lifting restrictions on foreign journalists. The shift has emboldened domestic journalists, who are now challenging rules that limited their reporting. It has also prompted Chinese citizens to think about rights of free speech.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Although they are more than a year away, the Summer Olympics have already begun to change China. Not just the physical construction, but the rules. For example, China has scrapped requirements that foreign journalists get official approval to cover news outside the cities they're based in.

As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing, some Chinese journalists are wondering why they aren't getting the same treatment.

ANTHONY KUHN: In past, reporting on China's vast countryside meant that foreign journalists had to have official permission and usually had to have officials accompany them and sit in on their interviews. When China's Foreign Ministry announced that these regulations would be scrapped from January 1st, 2007 through the Olympics, foreign journalists weren't the only ones to take notice.

Lu Yuegang is a veteran investigative reporter with the China Youth Daily, a newspaper run by the Communist Youth League.

Mr. LU YUEGANG (China Youth Daily): (Speaking foreign language)

KUHN: In past, he says, you foreign journalists had to sneak into places to get sensitive stories. Now, they allow you to go. If this is the case, how can they prevent Chinese journalists from going as well? Zhang Ping is also encouraged by the reforms. He's a senior journalist with Southern Metropolitan Magazine based in Southern Guangdong Province.

Mr. ZHANG PING (Southern Metropolitan Magazine): (Through translator) Some of the rules for foreign reporters have been loosened more than the rules that govern us, such as rules barring reporting the other provinces. We began thinking about our reporting, that we too should be striving for more lenient working environment.

KUHN: In defiance of the ban on reporting in other provinces, Zhang's magazine has recently published exposes on vigilante justice in the midwestern city of Wuhan and on medical research carried out with cells from aborted fetuses.

Mr. ZHANG: (Through translator) The ban is hard to enforce because reporters feel responsible for telling the truth and digging out the news. In addition, the media increasingly have to deal with market competition.

KUHN: Yu Guoming is deputy director of the Journalism School at People's University in Beijing. He says the reforms concerning foreign journalists could hint at further domestic liberalizations to come.

Mr. YU GUOMING (People's University in Beijing): (Speaking foreign language)

KUHN: I think this sends a positive signal, he says, and that is that China's top leadership has long-term strategic plans for the opening up of China's media. China had to pledge free access for foreign journalists in order to host the Olympics. Implementation of the rules so far has been uneven. And police have blocked foreign reporters from some politically sensitive interviews. There's another hitch.

The new rules on foreign journalists are slated to expire after the Olympics end. Does that mean a return to the old rules? Not necessarily, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao hinted.

Mr. LIU JIANCHAO (Foreign Ministry): (Through translator) I believe that your channels of information and permission to interview will be further expanded. Our policy of facilitating in assisting foreign journalists reporting in China will not change.

KUHN: So far, no Chinese media have run editorials calling for increased press freedoms. But concerned Chinese journalists agree on one thing. They, and not the foreign media, bear the main responsibility for conveying China's public opinion and acting as a watchdog on its government.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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