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Watch Groups: China Failing in Commitments to Press Freedom

International human rights groups say China is failing in its commitments to media reform and continues to restrict the work of foreign journalists. Speaking Thursday in Washington before a U.S. Senate review commission, activists said despite modest advances in press freedom in recent years, the Chinese government is still keeping press coverage of sensitive issues under tight control.

The groups say they were initially encouraged last October when the Chinese government made permanent the media freedoms granted to foreign journalists during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But nearly one year later, the Committee to Protect Journalists, which monitors international media rights, says violations of press freedom in China continue.

Watch groups say Chinese authorities have jailed at least 24 journalists involved in the publication of material on the internet.

Madeline Earp is an Asia research associate with the CPJ. Speaking Thursday on Capitol Hill, Earp said the Chinese government often restricts media coverage of sensitive issues that could project a negative image of Chinese officials. "Government officials in China continue to put the risk of personal embarrassment to their government above the public good," she said.

Earp said this has been especially true in the case of public health scandals such as the 2008 revelation that Chinese companies were using the toxic chemical melamine in food products.

Phelim Kine, an Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch, said the media reforms extended after the Beijing Olympics were a missed opportunity. The reforms gave journalists the right to conduct interviews without advance government permission and gave journalists greater travel freedoms.

But Kine said foreign journalists are still subjected to harassment, detention, and intimidation by government officials and Chinese security forces. "In spite of the fact that the Chinese government has committed to these freedoms on paper and publicly, the real day to day life of a foreign journalist in China remains extremely difficult and the challenges remain immense," Kine said.

In addition to restricting the activities of foreign journalists, the Chinese government is now focusing on regulating sources who provide information and resources to reporters. Kine says Chinese nationals helping journalists are often punished.

"These are the people who are supplying the news which we need to know in order to understand China, and more and more security forces and government officials are looking specifically identifying and targeting sources and silencing them. This does no credit to the Chinese government's commitment to media freedom and it is a detriment to our understanding of what is going on in China," Kine added.

In its defense, the Chinese government points to Article 35 of the country's constitution which allows complete freedom of the press. But groups like the CPJ and Human Rights Watch say the government continues to attempt to control the news. Kine said he does not expect change.

"We still do not know to a large extent what is going on in China, because when the government wants to control, it does, and the reflex remains control with regards to sensitive issues, natural disasters, public health, all the types of issues that are transnational in nature. These issues remain under very tight control, and they will be for the foreseeable future," Kine said.

Kine says the only driving force that could change press freedom in China, is the United States and the International Community drawing attention to where the Chinese government is falling short.