China eases restrictions for foreign journalists

** FILE ** In this June 5, 2008 file photo, visitors look at a giant panda through the protective glass of a renovated panda hall inside a zoo in Beijing, China. The Wuhan Zoo in central China has been feeding its two pandas home-cooked chicken soup twice in a month to reduce stress and give them a nutritional boost, a zoo official said Friday, Oct. 3, 2008. The pandas of the Wuhan Zoo were tired and suffering from a little shock since the start Monday of the weeklong National Day holiday, one of the biggest travel seasons of the year. On Oct. 1, 2008, up to 30,000 people swarmed the zoo and about 1,000 tourists packed the panda enclosure, shouting to get the animals' attention. The pandas paced restlessly. (AP Photo/Andy Wong, File)
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BEIJING (AP) -- China took a further step toward opening itself to the world, announcing Friday that an easing of restrictions on foreign journalists enacted for the Olympics would become permanent.

Premier Wen Jiabao signed the new decree, which took immediate effect, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao at a late-night news conference.

Under the new regulations, which had been anticipated by journalists, foreign reporters would not be required to get government permission to travel within the country or to interview Chinese citizens.

"This is not only a big step forward for China in opening up to the outside world, it is also a big step for further facilitating reporting activities by foreign journalists," Liu said.

China had loosened its decades-old controls on foreign reporters - which included requiring government permission for all interviews and travel - at the beginning of 2007. The changes were part of the Communist country's pledge to increase media freedom, which helped Beijing's bid to host the 2008 Olympics.

The Olympic rules were set to expire at midnight Friday. China had refused to say earlier whether it would extend the rules past that deadline.

Even under the relaxed rules, foreign journalists and monitoring groups complained that Chinese authorities still harassed and occasionally detained journalists in the run-up to the Olympics.

During the games, there were multiple instances - at least 30 cases - of reporting interference, according to the FCCC.

The new rules replace regulations on foreign media coverage originally established in 1990, after the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.

However, journalists will still not be allowed to travel to the restive region of Tibet and other restricted areas without getting special permission from local authorities, Liu said.

In addition, China's tight grip over domestic journalists remains unchanged, with all state media remaining under government control. Chinese citizens are also not allowed to work as journalists for foreign media organizations.

However, Liu said the country's leaders are moving toward reform in many different areas, including the press.

"It's China's basic policy to reform and open up. Why should we keep opening up? Because we need to have better understanding, mutual understanding with the world. An important part of this is the press," Liu said.

"Opening up is very important. I believe in the past year and a half, China has improved a lot in this regard, and I believe it will do an even better job in the future," he said.

Liu said the new regulations would be clearly explained to local governments as well as public security agencies, with continued training and workshops.

"I am confident that this new regulation will be implemented faithfully and soundly," he said. "Still, there is a process, and we need your constructive cooperation so this regulation will be implemented well.

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China welcomed the decision to extend the Olympic reporting rules.

"If properly implemented, we believe this will mark a step forward in the opening of China's media environment," said club president Jonathan Watts.

"We urge the government to ensure that police and local officials respect the spirit as well as the letter of the new rules. The easing of controls for foreign journalists should not be achieved at the expense of putting more pressure on local sources," he said.

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