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China media freedoms in limbo as Olympic rules end

October 17, 2008

BEIJING (Reuters) - China was silent on media freedom on Friday, the expiry date of special Olympic regulations that had officially allowed foreign journalists to report freely in most of the country for nearly two years. Local governments across China, which once had to approve any visit by overseas correspondents to their regions, said they would still follow the temporary rules in the short term.

As part of Beijing's bid to host the August Games, it promised to allow complete media freedom and although the state's grip over domestic media did not ease it did relax controls on foreign correspondents.

There were problems with access to restive Tibet and some controversial sites were blocked at the start of the Games, but the regulations made it easier to report on many things, from windfarms to dissidents.

Rights groups and the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, while welcoming the greater openness, have repeatedly expressed concern about ongoing harassment of reporters and those they interview, especially on sensitive topics like protests.

The special regulations were due to expire on Friday, technically thrusting China back to the pre-Olympic days of greater bureaucracy, and control and Beijing has been coy about what, if anything, will replace them.

"I understand everyone's eager desire," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a news conference on Thursday. "We will tell you very soon what the related arrangements are."

In China's vast hinterland, however, it appeared to be business as usual for now at least.

"There has been no change, the rules are still the same as for the Olympics," said Mr Zhou, a media official in Hebei province which has been in the spotlight for weeks because of a tainted milk scandal.

Officials in Anhui, Shandong, Hainan, Sichuan and Guangdong provinces also said they would continue using the Olympic period guidelines in the short term.

A leading critic of the government and the most senior official jailed over the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests also said he had not been told of any changes to the rules so far.

Before the new rules came into effect on Jan 1, 2007, journalists were not allowed to officially interview Bao Tong, but he has since been able to grant many such requests.

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