Amnesty International warned last Wednesday that the international community must not allow the Winter Olympics in Beijing to become "complicit in a propaganda exercise."
The organization fears that China sees the games as an opportunity to detract from alleged human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims and clamping down on freedom of speech in Hong Kong.
When Beijing was chosen to host the games in 2015, it agreed to Rule 48 of the Olympic Charter, which says that "all decisions concerning the coverage of the Olympic Games by the media rest within the competence of the International Olympic Committee (IOC)."
The rule is in place largely to protect media freedoms, with unrestricted internet access for journalists and the freedom to move around the host country at will.
Alkan Akad, Amnesty International’s China researcher, wrote in the report: "The Beijing Winter Olympics must not be allowed to pass as a mere 'sportswashing' opportunity for the Chinese authorities, and the international community must not become complicit in a propaganda exercise. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) must also insist that the Chinese government keeps its promise to guarantee media freedom."
The press, boxed
The games, which start on 4 February, and the Paralympics on 4 March, will take place under a "closed loop."
The loop, as outlined in the Beijing Playbook issued to the media, applies for the entire time spent in China, and "ensures that there is no contact with the general public or anyone outside the closed loop."
Just weeks before the playbook was released, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China posted a Twitter thread calling for freedom of movement and access to provide independent news coverage. The request has largely been ignored.
1/ Statement on Olympic Coverage— Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (@fccchina) November 2, 2021
The FCCC is concerned about the lack of transparency and clarity from the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) as well as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) with regards to Olympic-related reporting in China.
From the moment journalists land in Beijing, contact with staff at the hotel, Olympics venues and pre-approved transports links will be limited. Reporters have been told to expect an alien environment, with most service staff possibly wearing full hazmat suits.
Journalism.co.uk understands that some reporters feel China’s zero-covid policy could be used as a convenient way to stymie their work by restricting access under the guise of safety.
A positive COVID-19 test will mean 21 days in a secure hospital for those with symptoms and the same time in a secure facility for the asymptomatic.
The same isolation period also applies to anyone who is found to be a close contact of someone with a positive test, and it is understood that there are fears that this mechanism may be used to limit coverage.
The IOC has said that an independent medical board will oversee this, however.
What the hack
The British Olympic Association has warned athletes against taking mobile phones and other devices to the Winter Games for fears that they will be hacked.
Journalists have followed suit, with guidance from the British Embassy advocating ‘burner’ phones and laptops that can be ‘disinfected’ for malware after the games.
This follows advice from Reporters Without Borders urging the foreign press to protect themselves against surveillance while working in Beijing.
Their advice included using virtual private networks (VPNs), encrypted messaging services and avoiding downloading apps developed in China, such as TikTok.
However, as part of the playbook, athletes and journalists are mandated to download the app MY2022, which collects anything from email addresses to health data.
With stringent restrictions in place largely because of COVID-19 and reduced press numbers, journalists are expecting to struggle to find the breadth of stories usually found at the Olympics.
Asian program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CJP), Steven Butler, said: "Journalists should be free to report as they see fit. There’s a whole contingent of journalists stationed in Beijing who are not in the closed loop. They will certainly report, very broadly, to what extent they can."
But Butler believes that any journalist outside the loop and the protection it affords are limited in what they can say.
On January 19, journalist Emily Feng tweeted about the "vitriolic backlash" she received for a story covering snail noodles, as it was deemed critical of Chinese culture.
4/ We were not deterred. After all, I love snail noodles. So I went to Guangxi w/ @nprworld and had a great time and talked to lovely people.— Emily Feng 冯哲芸 (@EmilyZFeng) January 20, 2022
Here's how some Chinese outlets reacted: 'Anti-China foreign citizen of Chinese descent infiltrates Guangxi:"https://t.co/nhfj7SBdez
"She was harassed at every turn, and really was prevented from reporting properly on the story," explained Butler. "If they’re going to that length for a story that shouldn't be controversial, what are they going to do to journalists who try to report on human rights issues?"
"There will be journalists [inside the loop] who will be strictly covering sporting competition. Editors will tell some reporters to stick to the sports and others to venture beyond that. But if the athletes speak out, the journalists are going to cover it."
Journalists who step out of line may face confinement to their hotels or be forced to leave the country early, Butler added, but to do so would not sit well with the IOC.
Butler thinks that it is far more likely that journalists and media outlets will be punished retrospectively, with bureaus and foreign correspondents squeezed out after the games close.
The CPJ Safety Advisory outlines steps reporters can take while covering the games, like protecting sources, personal information and understanding that there will be almost constant surveillance.
The deputy director of international relations for Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) said last Wednesday that athletes could face cancelation of their accreditation or other "certain punishments" for "any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations."
Last week Human Rights Watch gave a press conference advising athletes not to criticize China’s human rights record while competing in Olympic events in the country.
Journalists will find it difficult to avoid reporting it if they do, however, but may find their freedom to report in China swiftly curtailed.