Feb 8, 2022 - World

Olympics put Chinese authorities' press intimidation on full display

Illustration of a camera lens with a no symbol in the lens reflection

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Foreign correspondents in China are speaking out after a Chinese security official pulled a Dutch reporter out of his live shot during the Olympic opening ceremony.

Why it matters: The International Olympic Committee called it an "isolated incident," but the press environment in China has deteriorated dramatically in the past two years. Foreign journalists have been kicked out of the country, and intimidation and physical violence targeting journalists have become more common.

  • "I'm sorry but this sort of thing is not an "isolated event" and happens regularly to resident foreign media journalists based in China," tweeted Edward Lawrence, a senior journalist based in China for the BBC.

Details: The reporter, Sjoerd den Daas, a correspondent for Dutch broadcaster NOS, tweeted the next day: "[J]ust after we had gone live, I was forcefully pulled out of the picture without any warning by a plainclothes man wearing a red badge that read, 'Public Safety Volunteer.' He did not identify himself."

  • "When asked, they couldn't say what we had done wrong," he wrote.
  • Eventually, they were able to continue the live TV hit from a parking lot around the corner, den Daas said.

What happened to den Daas doesn't appear to be an isolated incident.

  • Antoine Morel, a correspondent for France 24, tweeted a picture on Sunday of a "guide" assigned to his team "at the last moment to follow us everywhere and take back the people we ask questions if they deviate from the official discourse."
  • Patrick Fok, a Beijing-based journalist with Feature Story News, tweeted Sunday, "Stopped by security at Wangfujing [a street in Beijing]. Showed my press pass. Told interviewing people to ask them how they are enjoying the Olympics is not allowed."

Flashback: The atmosphere of intimidation is dramatically different from the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, when Chinese authorities made it easier for journalists all around the world to enter China for months leading up to the Olympics and allowed them to travel freely around the country, in what was seen as a sign of greater opening up to the world.

  • In 2022, leaders in Beijing seem less interested in garnering approbation from Western democracies and their reporters and more interested in demonstrating that their rules matter most.
  • "In 2008 China still wanted to learn from the world even as it showcased its accomplishments and its civilization. Now they want the world to get used to Chinese power and to accept Xi's claim that his totalitarian rule is better than democracy," Mark Clifford, president of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong and former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post, told Axios in an email.

Be smart: U.S. news outlets are facing increased pressure from lawmakers to highlight in their Olympic coverage the human rights abuses committed by the Chinese Communist Party.

  • Republicans sent a letter to NBCUniversal executives last month voicing concerns about "the extent of influence the CCP may have over NBCUniversal’s coverage of the games."

During the opening ceremony on Friday, NBC News anchor and Olympics co-host Savannah Guthrie called out the "stunning decision" by Chinese officials to have a Uyghur cross-country skier light the Olympic cauldron.

  • "It's so striking and so provocative by [Chinese President] Xi Jinping, and a real message," Guthrie said, per Reuters.
  • A report from the Wall Street Journal Sunday suggested the skier has not been heard from in recent days, after successfully avoiding post-event press interviews.

The big picture: Chinese officials have long used press manipulation and censorship as a way of consolidating control. Even before this year's Olympics, concerns about the way the Chinese government treats free speech in the sports world had surfaced.

  • On Sunday, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai made her first media appearance since November in a controlled interview arranged by the Chinese Olympic Committee with French sports outlet L'Equipe.
  • In the interview, Shuai walked back allegations of sexual assault against a Chinese official that she made last year, per NPR.

The bottom line: "In recent weeks, we, like several foreign colleagues, have been hindered or stopped several times by the police while reporting on subjects related to the Games," den Daas tweeted.

  • "Therefore, it’s hard to see last night's incident as an isolated incident, as the IOC claims, although such interference rarely happens live on broadcast."
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