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Media Group Criticizes China on Press Freedom

China pledged to improve human rights and reduce restrictions on media in its bid to host the Summer Olympic Games in 2008. As the 12-month countdown for the games begins, Beijing-based journalists wonder if those promises will be kept. Sam Beattie reports from Beijing.

It is the world's premier sports event, and it is now less than a year away. That is what was on the minds of the hundreds of thousands of people across China who were participating in traditional morning exercises on Wednesday. The Chinese say they are ready to play host to athletes, spectators and journalists from around the world.

"Of course we welcome all of them to come here. They will be happy as well," said one person.

"We are welcoming our country's Olympic games,” added another. “We didn't sleep last night, because we were afraid of waking up late. Thinking about this event. It feels so exciting."

At all media events in China, state security guards keep foreign reporters under close watch. But rules for journalists are changing. Last year, interviewing Chinese citizens on the street without permission from local police was illegal. To win the bid for the Olympic Games, China lifted restrictions on media, to bring the country closer to international norms. And in January, authorities said Chinese citizens would temporarily be allowed to decide for themselves if they want to be interviewed by foreign reporters.

Yet this week, French media freedom advocates Reporters Without Borders held a small press briefing in the Chinese capital. The organization's general secretary, Robert Menard, criticized what he called China's failure to live up to its Olympic bid promises, citing a number human rights abuses and the imprisonment of Chinese journalists.

"We are here now in China because there is one year to go before the Olympics to remind the Chinese government of what they said six years ago in Moscow. The Olympic Games will help to respect press freedom and human rights," said Menard.

Reporters Without Borders' point hit home this week, when -- in the shadow of the Beijing Organizing Committee Olympic Games Headquarters -- local police detained more than a dozen foreign reporters covering the event.

Stunned at what they took to be flagrant disregard for the new media laws, the journalists argued with police.

The reporters were from Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Americas, and after less than an hour, they were allowed to leave.

The president of the Foreign Correspondents Club China, Melinda Liu, says she is not surprised at the detaining of reporters. The organization's recent survey into working conditions shows many members believe little has improved under the new regulations.

"There are still incidents of detention, being denied access to public areas, being followed,” she said. “A large number of members report their sources have been intimated or harassed, or even beaten up and, of course, this is very worrisome."

Yet Zhong Xin, an associate professor of journalism at Renmin University, is optimistic that media freedom in China is improving. She says it is important to make sure local law enforcement officers know that the rules have actually changed -- to educate them on the new laws.

"It needs continuous explaining, directing. In particular to all levels of local government officials, to tell them it's not wrong. This is very important."

Less than a thousand accredited foreign journalists are working in Beijing right now. And Olympic organizers have 12 months to prepare for the onslaught. Twenty thousand more foreign journalists are expected in Beijing to bring news of the games to people all over the world.