China lifts ban on Tiananmen websites

Websites on sensitive subjects such as the bloody crackdown on democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 were accessible in the Chinese capital on Saturday as the authorities lifted more internet restrictions in order to meet their Olympic Games commitments.

However, reporters questioned the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) claim that the issue had been ”resolved”, pointing out that many sites — such as those sympathising with Tibetan groups — could still not be accessed.

Kevan Gosper, head of the IOC’s press commission, described the changes as ”a work in progress”, but acknowledged that some restrictions would remain.

While some sites, including the BBC’s Chinese-language service and Amnesty International, became available on Friday, Saturday’s changes went much further. English-language accounts of the 1989 protests on the BBC and Wikipedia sites were accessible from outside the Olympic press centre on Saturday. Some less detailed Chinese-language material could also be found.

However, Wikipedia’s ”Chinese democracy movement” page was inaccessible, and websites on banned spiritual movement the Falun Gong, the Tibetan government in exile, the International Campaign for Tibet and Free Tibet remained off limits by Saturday night.

Under pressure from IOC officials, the authorities began unblocking sites following an outcry over censorship. While they routinely bar access to sites, they had promised that Olympic reporting would be ”free and unfettered”.

It was unclear on Saturday why the restrictions were so widely lifted when the original promise was made only to overseas journalists who would presumably be working in the main press centre and major hotels. But, with the opening ceremony on Friday, officials seemed keen to smooth over the row and stress that they welcomed foreign media.

”The IOC put in place a working group with Bocog [the Beijing organising committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad] to start examining those sites that the international media thought should be unblocked,” said Gosper.

But he added that every country censored sites that it judged to be subversive or dangerous to national interests. ”The line between what could be considered as a national interest issue might be a bit blurred, but we will work on it and deal with any potential grievances,” he said.

Challenged over IOC president Jacques Rogge’s pledge that ”there will be no censorship on the internet”, spokesperson Giselle Davies insisted that the committee’s position had not changed.

Human Rights Watch spokesperson Nicholas Bequelin said: ”Arbitrarily blocking and unblocking websites is not true respect for freedom of expression. The government can turn off the tap as soon as they want.”

Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of the Beijing-based media website, said: ”The filtering programmes are probably turned up high — but because they are trying to make sure that foreign-language sites that journalists care about don’t get blocked, there are going to be lots of leaks in the system.”

The IOC agreed on Saturday to donate £2-million to the earthquake-hit Sichuan region. A 6,1-strength aftershock on Friday — one of the largest since the main tremor on May 12 — injured 231 people. —

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