Update on the OPC’s Communications with the International Olympic Committee

As many of you know, the OPC since May has sought to engage in a dialogue with the International Olympic Committee over the rules of the road for journalists covering the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February.

We reached out to other media organizations and non-profits, 28 of which signed our letter appealing to the IOC to include press-freedom issues in its negotiations with the Chinese government over the Games.

The bad news is that, despite a volley of letters back and forth, we’ve received no assurances from the IOC that it has or will convey our concerns to the Chinese government, let alone seek the kind of coverage ground rules that journalists traveling to Beijing have every right to expect.

Click here to see the full correspondence between the OPC and the IOC.

In our initial letter on May 11, we said our concerns were based on the deteriorating working conditions for journalists in China, as documented in a recent report from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China.

Our letter stressed that, if these conditions were applied to journalists covering the Winter Olympics, they would compromise the media’s ability to do its job properly and professionally.

Among other requests, we asked the IOC to obtain China’s agreement not to conduct surveillance of, or otherwise interfere with, international journalists and that visiting news organizations be allowed to hire local staff of their choosing.

We also asked that China set clear guidelines and processing times for journalist visa applications, and to extend journalist visas to online-only media organizations and freelance journalists.

Four email exchanges later, the IOC said it wouldn’t be able to deal with our requests until September, once the Tokyo Summer Games had concluded.

It wasn’t until Nov. 8 that the IOC informed us that the conditions for journalists had been set in the so-called Playbook that Chinese officials compiled for all athletes, sponsors and media.

The gist of the Playbook is that journalists will be required to stay within a closed geographical loop consisting of housing, training locations and competition venues. Under no condition can they leave the closed loop. What’s more, only Chinese Foreign Ministry-approved local translators and reporters would be allowed to assist non-Chinese media.

We responded that it didn’t appear that the IOC was serious about engaging in a dialogue with us, as the committee had not taken our recommendations seriously.

The IOC responded by saying it wanted to keep the dialogue going. So on Dec. 2, we again wrote back. “If you are willing to enter into a dialogue with us that includes serious consideration of our recommendations we would be happy to discuss this further with you,” we said.

Again, the IOC said it was open “to have a conversation with you about the conditions for journalists coming to the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, including the restrictions caused by the COVID-19 situation and the limits of the IOC.”

From that response, it appeared that the IOC was side-stepping our concerns and pointing to Covid restrictions and “the limits of the IOC” as a cover for its unwillingness to pressure Chinese officials to allow authentic journalistic freedoms.

We notified the IOC that we were publishing a story summarizing our exchanges in the next OPC Bulletin.

On Dec. 7, we received yet another response in which the IOC attempted to show that it was being responsive to our concerns without making any real commitments to press freedom.

It stated, for example, that the IOC, not the Chinese government, handles accreditation and visas for journalists covering the games. But we don’t know the basis on which these decisions are being made, if the Chinese government is being consulted, or whether freelance journalists have been able to get visas. Nor do we know if the Chinese government will attempt to censor stories or interfere in any way with attempts to do reporting.

This is where the situation now stands. We aren’t hopeful that this exchange will result in much progress, but we wanted to let OPC members know that it won’t be for lack of trying.

The Biden administration said on Dec. 5 that the U.S. won’t send its officials to the Winter Games. This suggests that the OPC isn’t alone in its frustration with the Chinese government’s intransigence.