Chinese officials are flouting a pledge made to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which helped to secure the 2008 games for Beijing, by harassing and abusing journalists, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Friday.
"The Chinese government's assurances of wider media freedoms during the Olympic Games were key to the International Olympic Committee's 2001 decision to allow Beijing to host the Games," the international rights watchdog said in a report.
Despite the unveiling last year of new freedoms for accredited foreign journalists, which were to run from the start of this year until October of next year, "journalists in China continue to face physical abuse and harassment from police and plainclothes thugs who appear to work at official behest," the report said.
"Violations of the letter and spirit of the temporary regulations raise troubling questions about the freedom of expression and the security of the thousands of journalists expected to come to Beijing to cover the 2008 Olympic Games," it said.
The report cites several incidents in the past month in which foreign media were denied access to dissidents or their families, barred from covering a public trial, or pressured to halt coverage of an event.
"But the piece of the puzzle we are more concerned about is that the relaxed rules don't apply to Chinese journalists or fixers and translators, and they remain as vulnerable as ever," HRW's Asia Advocacy director Sophie Richardson said.
Five Chinese journalists interviewing witnesses to a bridge collapse last month were beaten up by thugs and then arrested by the police, the report said.
The Chinese government has taken other, more subtle steps to muzzle domestic media -- unplugging Internet data centers which host thousands of servers and ordering search engines to remove some postings from Web sites, it said.
"Media freedom is one of the few issues on which the Chinese government made a fairly explicit commitment to the IOC in order to get the games," Richardson said.
"The fact that these temporary regulations, which were issued to fulfill an obligation to the IOC, are not being honored makes you wonder if issuing them in the first place wasn't a shallow gesture," she said.
"Presumably, the IOC will look to see that its standards are upheld. If they don't do something, then they will look weak," she said.
Richardson said she was both hopeful and pessimistic that China would ease restrictions on the media in the 11 months remaining before the Olympics open.
"I'm pessimistic in the sense that the impulse to control the press will not go away, especially because the entire world will be watching and the authorities will want to present a picture of a peaceful, prosperous, healthy China," she said.
"But I'm hopeful, too, because if the predicted numbers prove to be accurate, it will be hard to keep tabs on up to 25,000 journalists.
"Much will also depend on the extent to which the journalists take the regulations at face value and challenge people who flout them," she said.