China has invited the world to the Olympic Games but it isn't providing a very warm welcome.
The reported efforts of the Chinese government to control news coverage at and around the Olympics shine a strong light on the repressive conditions that the Chinese people live with every day. Reports from Beijing also should be a strong reminder to people in the United States and around the world of how closely our freedom is tied to a free press.
Chinese officials had pledged to give news organizations unrestricted access during the Olympics, but incidents that have occurred even before the opening ceremonies indicate that the Chinese must not have an adequate understanding of what "unrestricted" means.
After journalists protested the blocking of some Internet sites, the International Olympic Committee succeeded in getting them access to some, but not all, of the sites that Chinese officials had blocked. On Monday, two Japanese journalists sent to cover a suspected terrorist attack in the western part of China were detained and beaten by Chinese police.
The latest mandate is an apparent attempt to control news organizations that want to report or film from Tiananmen Square. The Beijing city government issued a statement saying journalists "are advised to made advanced appointments by phone" before reporting from the square. The goal, officials said, was to help ensure orderly news gathering amid the large crowds that are expected at the square.
What nonsense. Journalists know how to handle themselves in large crowds. The order would be roughly equivalent to journalists having to ask for an appointment to report from New York City's Times Square.
For obvious reasons, the Chinese government doesn't have much experience dealing with an unrestricted news media. Their own media - and the information they impart - is tightly controlled by the government. It must be quite a shock for the Chinese to experience the expectation of foreign reporters that they will be able to move about freely and report without asking permission. Who knows what they might find and show the world?
Controlling information is a key component of a repressive government. It helps government officials control the populace and weed out dissenters who might cause them trouble. Anyone who cries foul may be punished or arrested, and without any media oversight, that action will go unreported and unchallenged.
The Internet has given most of the world almost unlimited access to information, as well as rumors, opinions and rants. Like democracy, the information age sometimes can be a little messy, but compared to the repressive, fearful atmosphere of China, a free exchange of news and ideas looks pretty good.