BEIJING (AP) - Police detained journalists at a rare protest Monday in Beijing, staged by a free-press advocacy group that accuses the government of failing to meet promises for greater media freedom one year ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games.
The detentions, which came during a visit to China by International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, followed the unfurling of posters depicting the Olympic rings made from handcuffs members of Reporters Without Borders on a pedestrian bridge outside the headquarters of the Beijing Olympics planning committee.
The Paris-based group said China continues to restrict press freedoms and lock up journalists, political dissidents and activists who publish on the Internet - despite pledges to liberalize made when bidding to stage the games.
"Most important is that we didn't come to call for a boycott," said Vincent Brossel, a member of the group. "We are calling for concrete achievements, the release of political prisoners, opening of Web access and an end to radio jamming."
The Beijing Olympics, which begin Aug. 8, 2008, are a huge source of pride for China. In bidding for the games back in 2001, Chinese leaders promised International Olympic Committee members that the Olympics would lead to an improved climate for human rights and media freedoms.
Foreign journalists were promised "complete freedom to report."
Yet uniformed and plainclothes police physically restrained reporters coming down from the pedestrian bridge, pushing and pulling them, seizing IDs and refusing to allow them to leave the scene. Reporters were detained in a parking lot directly opposite the Olympics office tower, facing the Beijing 2008 logo and Olympic rings on the outside of the building.
Journalists were allowed to leave after about two hours, with no explanation from police about why they were detained.
A woman in the spokesman's office of the Foreign Ministry said she did not know about the case and would look into it. Liu Wei from the information office of the Beijing Olympics Organizing Committee said she was not aware of the situation and had no comment.
Brossel and other members of the group went apparently undetected by police and said they had returned to their hotel without incident. They were booked on flights out of China on Tuesday.
A long list of domestic and international groups are keen to use the Olympic spotlight to publicize their grievances with Beijing, ranging from human rights organizations to the banned Falun Gong spiritual sect and activists trying to pressure China to use its influence with Sudan to end the suffering in Darfur.
Chinese police and government research organs are reported to compiling dossiers of scores of groups and individuals that could cause disruptions at the games.
Authorities have also tightened up visa issuing regulations, the American Consulate in Shanghai said Monday. Since July, it has not been possible to convert tourist and exchange visas to other types, or receive express visa issuance, the consulate said. Many types of visas that used to be handled by a representative must now be applied for in person, it said.
China has also shown no sign of relaxing its strict controls on domestic media and the Internet, blocking many foreign Web sites deemed to carry politically sensitive content and imprisoning people who mail, post online, or access such information within China.
Reporters Without Borders says 50 Chinese "cyber dissidents" are currently in prison, along with 32 journalists.
While foreign journalists are generally safe from such punishment, a survey of 163 China-based foreign reporters last month found that 67 percent said they felt China had yet to allow "complete freedom to report" and 40 percent reported experiencing some form of interference in their work since Jan. 1, including in some cases surveillance, detention, reprimands and intimidation of sources.
Under a regulation announced last year, foreign reporters were exempted from the usual demands to apply for permission to travel and conduct interviews in China from Jan. 1 until mid-October 2008. The temporary freedoms do not extend to local Chinese journalists.
In a June letter to Rogge, Reporters Without Borders urged him to demand Beijing release political prisoners or risk tarnishing the image of the games.
"Who will say that the Olympic Games are a great sports event when thousands of prisoners of conscious are languishing in Chinese detention centers," the group said in the letter.