Rogge flies into storm on internet U-turn

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 August, 2008, 12:00am

Dissension wracks the IOC's senior ranks over 'broken promise' on censorship

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge arrived in Beijing yesterday to dissension in his ranks and an intensifying storm over internet censorship at the main Olympic press centre.

After revelations by IOC press commission chairman Kevan Gosper that backroom deals had seen IOC leaders acquiesce to mainland censorship of foreign journalists' internet access, IOC communications director Giselle Davies said Dr Rogge would seek answers from the mainland authorities about why some websites had been blocked.

'We will continue to push for more internet freedom and will work with the Chinese authorities to find out why sites such as the BBC [Chinese version] and Amnesty International are blocked,' Ms Davies said.

Mr Gosper said some senior officials had cut deals with the mainland authorities over internet censorship, leaving other influential members, including him, in the dark. This meant he and others had misled the international media, Mr Gosper said, and he apologised.

Yesterday he described himself the 'fall guy', saying he had learned of the new measures only when the South China Morning Post informed him of them on Tuesday.

He then hinted that Dr Rogge must have known of the new agreement, which allows the mainland authorities to block the websites of Amnesty International, groups supporting independence for Tibet or others discussing the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown or the banned Falun Gong spiritual group on the internet network serving the Olympic community, including the international press.

'I would be surprised if someone made a change without at least informing' Dr Rogge, Mr Gosper said.

Just two weeks ago, Dr Rogge said the internet would be uncensored during the Games. 'For the first time, foreign media will be able to report freely and publish their work freely in China. There will be no censorship on the internet,' he said.

With global condemnation mounting, Ms Davies admitted senior IOC members were under pressure to force some last-minute concessions out of the hosts and save its now damaged reputation and trust.

The mainland authorities justify blocking the websites on the grounds that they could harm social order and are illegal. 'As for the regulations, we are determined to implement the regulations and to try to implement the regulations effectively,' Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said yesterday.

Beijing Olympic organising committee spokesman Sun Weide added: 'A small number of internet sites are blocked, mainly because they violate Chinese law. We hope that foreign media will respect Chinese law in this matter.'

Ms Davies denied senior members of the organisation had been 'kept in the dark'.

'It is correct to say that nobody has been misinformed [within the IOC]. The Chinese side has always said pornographic sites and those deemed a threat to national security would not be allowed.'

As the row threatened to spill into one over semantics, Dr Rogge arrived at the Raffles Beijing Hotel near Tiananmen Square amid tight security. He was immediately briefed on developments, Ms Davies said.

He is due to face the press next week, and the IOC will be quizzed further tomorrow at a press conference.

Many are asking how senior IOC members - including Dr Rogge, Mr Gosper and the chairman of the influential co-ordination commission, Hein Verbruggen - could repeatedly suggest that uncensored internet access was guaranteed.

The Foreign Correspondents Club of China demanded the IOC disclose the full content of the new agreement before the opening of the Games in a week.

'Our members would also like to know why the IOC continued to publicly maintain up until this week that there would be no internet censorship during the Olympics,' club president Jonathan Watts said.

'The IOC charter calls for respect of universal fundamental ethical principles.

'The IOC is at grave risk of discrediting the Olympic movement if it fails to hold the Chinese government to its promises for a free media and access to the internet, and undercuts them with secret deals.'