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Thursday, August 2, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Foreign journalists grade China

McClatchy Newspapers

Editor's note: Tim Johnson is the Beijing bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers

BEIJING — It has been seven months since China relaxed regulations on how foreign reporters do their jobs in the approach to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.

How is it doing? It has just gotten a report card from the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, which includes more than 250 journalists, including yours truly.

The short answer: About 43 percent of correspondents said the reporting environment in China has improved since Jan. 1, when the Foreign Ministry temporarily lifted travel restrictions on journalists.

But there's a big caveat: More than 67 percent of foreign correspondents think the Chinese government has yet to live up to its pledge to allow "complete freedom to report" in the period before and during the Beijing Summer Olympic Games, scheduled to run from Aug. 8-24, 2008.

Moreover, 95 percent said reporting conditions in China do not meet international standards.

The club reported 157 incidents so far this year, including intimidation of sources, detentions, surveillance, official reprimands and violence against reporters, their employees or sources.

Melinda Liu, Newsweek correspondent and president of the club, said she welcomed progress under the new rules. But she added: "A nation where citizens who speak to foreign correspondents face threats, reprisals and even bodily harm does not live up to the world's expectations of an Olympic host."

The report also highlighted something else.

While the rules have been relaxed, journalists are getting leaned on in other ways. The Foreign Ministry, resorting to a tactic from the bad old days, is summoning reporters in for official reprimands. The club says 11 correspondents have been given formal reprimands this year. I was among them.

The Foreign Ministry called in a Washington Post reporter to complain that the paper had published an op-ed column by Taiwanese leader Chen Shui-bian. A Kyodo News reporter was given a tongue-lashing because the news agency reported June 3 that Premier Wen Jiabao may not continue for a second five-year term.

The correspondents club is not the only group giving China a report card. On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch will issue a report on China and media freedoms.

In an e-mail preview, the group said: "One year before the 2008 Olympics open in Beijing, the Chinese government is violating commitments on media freedom it made to the International Olympic Committee by continuing to harass, intimidate and detain foreign journalists and their local colleagues."

So, some questions are left hanging for China, which has pledged to respect the relaxation of rules until Oct. 17, 2008.

What happens after that? Will foreign journalists once again have to ask permission every time they travel from their home base to report?

Time will tell.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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