IOC must press China on media freedom - group

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BEIJING, Nov 6 (Reuters) The International Olympic Committee must pressure China to ease restrictions on media freedoms ahead of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Human Rights Watch said today.

The communist state was not making good on its promises to allow greater freedoms to report for foreign journalists, the New York-based group said, adding that the IOC should use China's ''Journalists' Day'' on Thursday to speak up.

''The IOC's reluctance to challenge the Chinese government's ongoing violations of media freedoms is at odds with the Olympic Charter's dedication to 'ethical principles' and 'preservation of human dignity','' Sophie Richardson, the group's deputy Asia director, said in a statement.

China relaxed rules governing foreign reporters at the start of the year meaning now, in theory, they are allowed to report across most of the country without seeking prior permission.

China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said the government was making efforts to ensure the rules were implemented.

''I think this question is not for organisations like this (Human Rights Watch) to decide,'' he told a regular news conference, adding that the government was willing to listen to the concerns of reporters.

''Journalists sitting here all have first-hand experience of regulations that began on January 1. Their channels for interviewing have reached an improved level of access,'' he said.

But the relaxed rules will expire after the Games, and they do not extend to Chinese reporters, or to the local assistants, researchers and translators who work with foreign media.

''All these journalists remain vulnerable to reprisals from state security authorities for pursuing stories that run counter to official propaganda dictates on what constitutes acceptable news,'' Human Rights Watch said.

It also said the new regulations were not always being adhered to, citing three instances in the past month in which foreign journalists were harassed by police or guards while they were trying to cover stories.

Ahead of ''Journalists' Day'', China's press watchdog also issued a notice advising that lawful news coverage was protected and should not be interfered with.

''News coverage is an important channel for ensuring the public's right to know and in improving public supervision,'' Xinhua news agency quoted the notice from the General Administration of Press and Publication as saying.

But in a reminder of the limits on local journalists, the notice also said that news coverage must not ''blemish state interests''.

In the past, newspapers or citizens who try to expose cover-ups or report news that reflects poorly on the authorities have been silenced, harassed and even jailed.

REUTERS RAR RN1519

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