Media Attorney Tasks China with Freeing Speech

With Olympic Gamess coming up, a call for China to allow for more free speech.

The Olympic Games motto may be "faster, higher, stronger," but one veteran media attorney suggested that the true success of the Games will be if "freer" can be added to the Chinese lexicon when the Olympic torch is passed -- an amendment that would likely require the continued pressure from the United States and others.

In an opinion paper penned for Washington, D.C.-based First Amendment think tank The Media Institute, Kurt Wimmer, senior vice president and general counsel for Gannett, warned that optimism over signs that China might loosen its media restrictions has been damped by a return to censorship of news reports on protests over Tibet and continuing Internet restrictions.

Wimmer suggested that the Olympics is a great opportunity for more openness only if it is accompanied by an "action plan" that frames the Games as the beginning of a "concerted effort to convince the Chinese people of the value of free expression."

"If the parade of international media provokes Chinese citizens to question why they are not trusted by their own government to receive uncensored versions of YouTube, Facebook, CNN, and BBC, perhaps popular pressure could usher in an era of greater transparency," he said, adding his own optimism to the mix.

But he also warned that the Chinese will spin any media coverage of protests at the Games -- rumored self-immolation by Falun Gong backers, for example -- as attempts by Western journalists to undermine the country. That, he added, could fuel nationalism and "set back the cause of free expression in China for years, if not decades."

Recognizing that risk-reward scenario to the presence of the International media, Wimmer said it is "essential" for the U.S. government to support free expression in China by "continuing to agitate for reform."

“The Beijing Olympiad: A Fleeting Opportunity for a Freer China” is the first in a series of opinion papers, dubbed Speaking Freely, being published by The Media Institute and The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. The paper will be available on both organizations' Web sites.