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Opinion: Can journalists covering Beijing Olympics get the real story?

Former Olympian and human rights advocate Nikki Dryden on the challenges journalists face covering the Games

Image: Gokarna Avachat

Image: Gokarna Avachat

Journalists covering the 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Beijing have an inimitable opportunity. If they are in China, they are the first reporters allowed since the last two journalists working for Australian media departed amid police interrogation in 2020. Both athletes and journalists will be subject to intense scrutiny and restrictions, unlike any seen in the history of the Olympic Games. For those covering the Games remotely, they have the daunting task of trying to report on a situation whose narrative is tightly controlled.

Like athletes, journalists covering the Games obtain accreditation through their countries’ National Olympic Committee (NOC). It is a visa into China and is owned by the International Olympics Committee (IOC). Normally this gives journalists a sense of security, but warnings to the contrary have sent chills through the athletic and press corps.

Journalists ‘have little protection’

Former Olympian and human rights lawyer Nikki Dryden.

While the IOC says it has assurances from the host that IOC rules will be upheld, who can blame athletes if they choose silence after a Beijing Olympic Official issued this threat: “Any behaviour or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment.”

If athletes are being threatened, journalists, who are routinely jailed in China, have little protection. China has been the “world’s worst jailer of journalists for three years running,” according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch have also reported on repression of free speech and jailing of journalists in China. Australian citizen and journalist Cheng Lei has been detained in China for 18 months on charges of sharing state secrets.

In 2008, I had media accreditation to cover swimming at Summer Games in Beijing. As a retired Olympic swimmer, I felt safe. That is until two colleagues at Team Darfur, a human rights group committed to using the IOC’s Olympic Truce policy to raise awareness about China’s involvement with genocide in Darfur, had their visas cancelled. Several active athletes on Team Darfur were threatened by their NOCs to remove their name from our website, or not go the Olympics.

But if China’s coming out party to the world in 2008 felt oppressive and threatening, 2022 is about Chinese leaders flexing their domestic might. From internet censorship to the targeting of civil society in Hong Kong, to mass violations of human rights in Xinjiang Province, and repression in Tibet, the 2022 Olympic slogan “Together for a shared future,” is clearly a different message than 2008’s “One World, One Dream.”

Tibetan protesters in Paris boycott the Beijing Olympics. gamesImage: Norbu Gyachung/Unsplash

Safety warnings for journalists

Many organisations have issued extensive safety warnings to journalists. Human Rights Watch has also warned about China’s high-tech surveillance and the US FBI issued a warning on malicious cyber actors ahead of the Games.

China’s zero COVID-19 policy means the Olympics will happen completely isolated from the rest of China. Not unlike other sports bubbles set up since the pandemic began, the “closed loop” means journalists cannot leave the bubble to report on anything but the Games.

Journalists and athletes have been warned they will have their devices and online activities monitored. It is illegal in China to use an unlicensed VPN to bypass the firewall and advice is don’t take any device to China that you want to bring home, to create new emails and socials only to be used while in China and never to leave your devices in your hotel room.

In January, The Citizen Lab report exposed security flaws with the Game’s COVID-19 “My2022” health app that could expose users’ personal details and medical history. Use of the health reporting program is required for visitors from 14 days prior to travel to China. The report also analysed the app’s communication functions finding a censorship keyword list that included Xinjiang and Tibet.

Faith in IOC wavers

The IOC has a grievance mechanism for journalists “who may have experienced press freedom violations in connection with working on Olympic Games-related coverage.” But given declining press freedoms and human rights in the seven years since Beijing was awarded the Winter Games, the IOC seems ill equipped to assist if a journalist’s freedoms are curtailed.

Led by the US, many countries have lost faith in the IOC’s abilities. Fifteen countries are officially or unofficially diplomatically boycotting, and US Congress unanimously resolved that the IOC is failing on human rights by “acquiescing to the Chinese Communist Party’s narrative,” on the Peng Shuai case.

Having failed to proactively protect their two most important stakeholders, athletes and journalists, I am not hopeful the IOC can properly assist. I hope some athletes speak out as is their international human right and that journalists will cover those stories and more. But without legal guarantees, Peng and Cheng’s cases highlight the potential consequences for athletes and journalists who fail to follow China’s rules, even at the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Nikki Dryden is a two time Olympic swimmer and two time Olympic journalist. She is a human rights lawyer and an associate at the Australian Human Rights Institute (UNSW, Sydney).