The Olympics and press freedom

Journalists can face restrictions while covering the games

In 2001, the last time Beijing was competing to host the Olympic Games, Chinese officials made many promises, including a pledge that journalists covering the event would operate with “complete freedom” and “no restrictions.”  

But as the Committee to Protect Journalists documented in a report entitled “Falling Short,”  China failed to make good on these promises. As the 2008 Beijing Olympics unfolded, internet censorship remained in place; the international media was monitored and restricted; and Chinese journalists faced the same controls to which they are accustomed.

Now Beijing is back, one of two finalists vying with Almaty, Kazakhstan to host the 2022 winter Olympics. The two authoritarian countries are the last bidders standing after all five contenders from democratic countries dropped out. The International Olympic Committee is expected to announce its decision in July.

The awarding of the 2022 games represent a crisis of legitimacy for the IOC, and its new reform-minded president, Thomas Bach. Bach sees himself not merely as the chief administrator of a global sporting spectacle, but as the leader of a movement that can be a powerful force for good in the world. Or as the Olympic Charter states it grandiloquently, “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind.”

Bach’s ability to achieve this objective will depend on extracting meaningful human rights and press freedom concessions from Kazakhstan or China in exchange for the right to host the 2022 games.

For journalists and press freedom advocates struggling to address the unprecedented level of violence and repression against the media worldwide, the awarding of the 2022 games represents a unique opportunity. Potentially, the IOC has enormous influence with repressive governments who seek to host the Olympics as a means of the burnishing their reputations and garnering international legitimacy. But historically, it has been unwilling to use it.

For example, when I met with then IOC-President Jacques Rogge at its headquarters in Lausanne prior to the 2008 Beijing games, Rogge declined to press China on its press freedom commitments. He offered two contradictory arguments. The first was that it was not the IOC’s role to advocate for the rights of journalists. Though Rule 48 of the Olympic Charter requires the IOC to take “all necessary steps in order to ensure the fullest coverage by the different media and the widest possible audience in the world for the Olympic Games,” the IOC has interpreted this clause in the narrowest sense, as applying only to coverage of the sporting events.  

Rogge’s second argument was that the Olympics themselves would produce long-term positive changes in China’s media environment. This has not been borne out. At the time of the 2008 games, China held 26 journalists in jail. Today, there are 44 behind bars, more than any other country in the world. Accordingly press freedom groups, including CPJ, argue that the “fullest coverage” must be interpreted to include reporting on corruption, human rights violations, cost overruns, and political disagreements associated with the games.

The turning point for IOC came with the September 2013 election of Bach. Bach, a German who won a gold medal in fencing in the 1976 Montreal games, ran on a reformist agenda, promising to streamline the bidding process, make the games more sustainable, and reinvigorate the ideals behind the Olympic movement.
Instead, in February 2014 he was confronted with the mess in Sochi, where the Winter Olympics were held. Despite the well-documented abuse of migrant labor, the venues were the most expensive in history. Construction also caused massive environmental damage. Protesters were beaten in the streets by whip-wielding Cossacks. The LGBT community was publicly condemned and vilified by Russian officialdom. The media was corralled and restricted. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin exploited the nationalist fervor created by the games to rally support for annexation of Crimea, which he accomplished only a few weeks after the Olympic torch was extinguished.

Last September, I returned to the IOC headquarters to meet with Bach and the new leadership to make the case once again that the IOC has an obligation to ensure that the media can cover the games without restriction. We discussed two proposals. The first is the creation of a formal mechanism to allow journalists to lodge complaints about press freedom violations with the IOC, which could raise concerns with the appropriate authorities. The second is to create an external evaluation group that would review bids to ensure compliance with international press freedom norms. These proposals were outlined in a letter sent to Bach following the meeting. Bach responded positively, committing to having a formal media complaint mechanism up and running in time for the 2016 Rio Games and to study the second idea.

In October, Human Rights Watch’s Minky Worden met with Bach and awarded him a “gold medal” for his commitment to include human rights standards in future host city contracts. In December, the IOC approved Bach’s sweeping reform package, which includes changes to Principle 6 to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Bach is genuine reformer, but he is also a savvy politician who is taking action to preserve the value of the Olympic brand. With the Rio games to be followed by the 2020 games in Tokyo, the IOC claims the challenge of attracting a broad range of bidders is confined to the Winter Olympics because there are far fewer viable options. But the threat to the legitimacy of the Olympic movement extends beyond the marquis events. Last December, for example, the European Olympic Committees awarded the first ever European Games to Baku, Azerbaijan. The games will he held in June 2015.

Oil-rich Azerbaijan is a kleptocracy ruled by a second-generation dictator, Ilham Aliyev. His government believes hosting the Baku games will not only strengthen Azerbaijan’s standing in Europe, but will bolster its anticipated bid to host the 2024 Olympics, after coming up short in its 2016 and 2020 efforts. At the same time, authorities in Azerbaijan have been mounting a sweeping crackdown on civil dissent, and have the jailed the country’s leading investigative journalists, Khadija Ismayilova.

The European Games will be a focus for advocacy by human rights and press freedom groups, including CPJ. The media covering global sporting events also has a responsibility, and that is to shine a critical spotlight of human rights and press freedom violations, including abuses committed against local colleagues like Ismayilova.

Such coverage will not be pleasing to the repressive governments that seek to host the Olympics. But if journalists face restrictions or impediments, the IOC should seek practical ways to intervene. Ultimately, it is in the interest of the IOC to defend the work of journalists covering all aspects of the games. In fulfilling this obligation, the IOC will strengthen the Olympic movement and support the reform process to which President Bach has committed.

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Joel Simon is a CJR columnist and the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. His second book, The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom, was published by Columbia University Press in November 2014.