Wrong message sent to 'ultimate judges'

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 July, 2008, 12:00am

The irony was not lost on anyone who read Friday's People's Daily article 'To be kind to the media is to be kind to the global audience', and was then treated to video footage showing Beijing police using unnecessary force to manhandle Hong Kong journalists who tried to cover chaos surrounding the sale of Olympics tickets that day.

'To serve the media is to serve the Olympics,' the People's Daily article crowed. 'To be kind to the media is to be kind to the global audience, a solemn commitment China has made.'

It quoted former International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch saying that the media were the ultimate judges of the Games, and said that to a certain extent the history of the Beijing Olympics would be jointly written by tens of thousands of media workers and other participants.

But Friday's clashes between police and reporters did not bode well for how global audiences will view the Beijing Olympics, because of the way the capital's police treated the 'ultimate judges'. Television footage showed that several Hong Kong journalists were pushed, dragged and forcibly removed from reporting on the chaos.

On Saturday, Olympic organisers admitted the police had acted inappropriately and promised to learn from the experience.

The unfortunate incident may appear isolated, but it says a lot about Beijing's readiness, or lack of it, just days before the Games start.

More important, it raises serious concerns about whether the mainland authorities will pass the ultimate tests - how to deal with perceived negative events and incidents, and the overseas media that will want to cover them.

At first glance, Friday's chaos stemmed from flaws in the ticket sales system and crowd management by police. Zhai Huisheng , director of the Beijing International Media Centre, was quoted as characterising the chaos as an accident because the authorities had not expected to see so many ticket buyers and so many reporters.

Well, the authorities should have anticipated it, because the overwhelming enthusiasm of mainland sports fans paralysed the computer and phone systems during the first two phases of ticket sales between November and February.

The fact that several dozen police were seen manhandling a small group of Hong Kong journalists instead of focusing their efforts on keeping surging fans in line is worrying not just because of their use of unnecessary force or lack of adequate training, as officials later claimed. It makes one wonder how the mainland police, and the mainland authorities for that matter, will react to more serious incidents such as protests or emergencies, including terrorist attacks and bomb threats, before and during the Games.

For a major event like the Olympic Games, it is impossible not to expect trouble or problems. The key is how to deal with them.

As the mainland leadership hails the Games as China's coming-out party and an important step in the rejuvenation of the nation, it has whipped up nationalistic sentiment to such a level that it can backfire. It has also made government officials, including the police, jittery and prone to overreact to anything that can be seen as negative.

Unfortunately, Friday's incident has shown that the ugly side of nationalism is at work again. When the chaos started, the immediate police reaction was to restrain journalists and prevent them from recording the incident. Such attempts will prove futile and can only enhance the international media's suspicion and distrust of the mainland's pledges to allow free reporting on the Games.

Even more worrying is a scenario that is likely in the current climate of nationalistic fervour - for the sake of the Games, some officials may attempt to cover up accidents or events and later be found out by the international media, as happened during the initial outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in Beijing in 2003.

To win over 'the ultimate judges' and thus ensure the success of the Games, the mainland authorities will have no choice but to honour their pledges truly to allow free reporting.