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Media fears interference from Chinese government as Olympics begin

First, Web site access was restricted in the International Broadcast Center (IBC). Then, Chinese police officers beat two Japanese journalists in western China. Now, the Chinese government has set up last-minute obstacles for news outlets wanting to report from iconic sites such as Tiananmen Square.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it is looking into the change of rules that require reporters to make appointments to do reports at Tiananmen. In the meantime, the Japanese government and the Foreign Correspondents Club of China condemned the roughing up of the Japanese newsmen who were covering an attack by alleged Muslim separatists on police in Xinjiang province.

The separate incidents added to the impression that China is not living up to promises that foreign media would have unrestricted access during the games and has reverted to the tight controls that the government keeps over the press in normal times. In the latest restriction, Chinese officials have said that foreign journalists who want to report and film in Tiananmen “are advised to make advanced appointments by phone.”

Surrounded by Beijing’s top landmarks, the square is iconic for its symbolism as the seat of the communist government and is desired as the site of TV broadcasts. A TV executive told the Associated Press that access to Tiananmen remains an issue even for broadcast companies that have paid tens of millions of dollars or more for the rights to broadcast the games.

Construction was not finished on a platform for broadcasters to use at the square only three days before opening day and already scheduled live broadcasts were being canceled because of the delay, said the executive, who agreed to discuss the situation only if not quoted by name to avoid offending officials during negotiations over the snag.

There are 30,000 foreign journalists gathered in China for the games, and more than 100,000 Chinese security guards are watching them. In Beijing, heavily armed police roam the airport. Subway passengers must submit to bag checks and go through X-ray machines, and the Beijing National Stadium is protected by antiaircraft guns.

In addition to metal detectors, bag searches and long lists of prohibited items, the Chinese are using bomb-sniffing dogs and special equipment that lets officials detect and identify radioactive isotopes.

The beating of the journalists is “utterly unacceptable any time” said Jonathan Watts, the foreign correspondent club’s chairman and a correspondent for the “Guardian” newspaper in Britain. “It’s particularly reprehensible just days before the Olympics at a time when China has promised complete media freedom.”

China has said it will “attack” and shut down Web sites that broadcast Olympic events illegally. No one is sure if this means they intend to attack other countries’ Web sites or private sites hosted internationally. If they do, it could be the first case of open international cyber warfare.

China has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on video surveillance and facial recognition technology, security analysts say. Beijing is wired and will stay that way after the Olympics.

“There’s been a lot issues about this raised about how this technology will be used after the games and even during the games,” said Richard Chace, a security expert. “That is a real concern, the legacy issue.”