Olympic Committee to China: Don't Block Internet

The International Olympic Committee told Beijing organizers Tuesday that the Internet must be open during the Games.

The message came from a high-ranking IOC official during the first of three days of meetings – the last official session before the August games – between the international Olympic body and the Chinese hosts.

"This morning we discussed and insisted again," said Kevan Gosper, vice chairman of the IOC coordinating commission, according to The Associated Press. "Our concern is that the press [should be] able to operate as it has at previous games."

China is known to block citizens' access to foreign Web sites including news and blogs, especially those critical of the government.

Gosper warned that restricting access to the Internet during the Olympics "would reflect very poorly" on Beijing. He also reminded China that it is obligated under the "host city agreement" to provide Internet access to the 30,000 journalists expected to attend.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said that Beijing will follow the "general practice of the international community" regarding Internet access, but declined to say if Internet would be open for journalists during the Games.

In recent weeks, Beijing renewed international concerns about its media censorship when it closed down Internet sites covering news about Tibet that was critical of the Chinese government.

China also banned foreign journalists from entering Tibet, and instead sought to control the news by using its own news mouthpiece to blame the riots on the Dalai Lama. It also claims that the death toll from demonstrations was only 22 when Tibetan exiles say the violence has left nearly 140 people dead.

Last week, China orchestrated a media tour of Tibet's capital Lhasa to show that the city was now calm. But monks interrupted the tour at a temple and shouted that the monks allowed to talk to journalists were "not true believers but … Communist Party members," according to AP.

"They are all officials, they (the government) arranged for them to come in. And we aren't allowed to go out because they say we could destroy things but we never did anything," another monk said.

In addition to Tibet, human rights groups have been pressing China on its treatment of North Korean refugees, house churches, and its ties with the Sudanese government, which is widely held responsible for the genocide in Darfur.

Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have crossed the border over to China to escape hunger and an oppressive government. But the Chinese government refuses to grant the North Korean refugees legal protection, instead driving them back to North Korea where they face imprisonment and even execution for leaving the country – a state crime in North Korea.

The U.N. Special Rapporteur on North Korea has declared that North Koreans who flee to China are "refugees," but China insists they are illegal economic migrants. China has angered many human rights groups with its policies toward North Koreans because many countries are willing to allow North Koreans to resettle in their country – including the United States and South Korea.

Beijing is also strongly criticized for its persecution of unregistered "house churches" including arresting house church leaders, those who print Christian literature without permission, and those who gather for "illegal" Bible studies.

"During his (President Bush's) visit to Beijing this summer, we urged the President to stress, in both private conversations and public action, that protecting religious freedom means more than just allowing worship," said Michael Cromartie, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, in a statement.

"It also means individuals must enjoy the freedom of expression and association, as well as the right to choose their own leaders and freely educate their children in the principles of their religion."

Meanwhile, celebrities and human rights activists have staged massive protests and campaigned against China's close ties with the Sudanese government. The activists demand that China use its Khartoum ties to end the genocide in Darfur, which has killed at least 200,000 people and displaced about 2.5 million since 2003.

American director Steven Spielberg quit his position as the Olympic artistic adviser for the opening and closing ceremonies because of China's ties with the Darfur genocide.

On Tuesday, more than a dozen U.S. House members asked President Bush in a letter to not attend the Olympic Games in Beijing to protest China's human rights records. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had earlier called Bush to boycott the opening ceremony.

The Beijing Olympic Games will take place Aug. 8-24.