January 31, 2006

That's Not Freedom of Expression! It's Journalism!

There was some odd news out of Japan yesterday, which has been picked up by a few other bloggers today:

The Japanese Olympic Committee is telling athletes competing at the Turin Winter Olympic Games not to open web logs because the Olympic Charter bans athletes' journalist activities when the games are on, and violators will be disqualified.

Indeed, the Olympic Charter does ban journalism by athletes, as a bye-law to Rule 51:

Only those persons accredited as media may act as journalists, reporters or in any other media capacity. Under no circumstances, throughout the duration of the Olympic Games, may any athlete, coach, official, press attaché or any other accredited participant act as a journalist or in any other media capacity.

In Canada, the COC issued this Media Advisory in 2004 which provides some interpretation of Rule 51 (then Rule 59):

This rule forbids any accredited Canadian team member to write articles, conduct interviews, be a commentator, host a report, publish his/her journal or interview others, from the moment they receive their accreditation until the end of the Olympic Games.

If an athlete is found to be in conflict with the Olympic Charter, he may be subject to having his accreditation revoked and lose his opportunity to compete in the Olympic Games.

I have also received an advisory from October 2005, which is similar in spirit but slightly different in detail:

an athlete or any accredited team member who may be producing a column, "diary" or any other type of submission for a Canadian print, broadcast or online media outlet prior to the Games is prohibited from doing so during the duration of the Games.

Now, if I was a real journalist, and not just an opinionated know-it-all, I would call up the COC and ask them if these statements are meant to include blogs, and what if the athletes aren't getting paid, and exactly how will this rule be enforced? But luckily Alison Korn is a real journalist, and she investigated this subject. After some initial confusion, the COC made a statement that athletes are allowed to update their own personal blogs with their personal comments, as long as they do not report on any events that are not related to them. In other words, you might say that a diary of your day-to-day experience is not journalism, and is therefore not covered by the IOC ban.

If the stories out of Japan are correct, then at least one NOC is taking a more restrictive view on the matter than Canada has. The IOC's position is still unclear and so far no official statement has been forthcoming.

So what is this rule all about, anyway? Perhaps we can get some more guidance from the IOC itself. Let's take a look at the IOC Internet Guidelines for the Written Press and Other Non-Rights Holding Media, XX Olympic Winter Games, Torino 2006. The title of the document reflects the IOC's business interest in journalism, you might say. The IOC sells the broadcast media rights to the Olympics, and they have a financial interest in controlling access to the sounds and images of the games. The written press is not subject to the same arrangement. Any journalist — or anybody else — in the world is free to write about the games, and they can do it on the internet if they wish.

As you might expect, then, these internet guidelines are all about moving images and sound; blogs are not mentioned, and in fact the document has this to say about written content:

Nothing contained within these guidelines is intended to restrict media organisations in any way from using their own websites to disseminate written coverage, for example to post articles such as those that would appear in a newspaper …

So I don't think that Rule 51 is about protecting the rights granted by the IOC, because the IOC really doesn't put many restrictions on the written word. They generate money from print only indirectly, in the sense that it contributes to a high level of public interest. Surely athlete journalists would do that too.

Maybe Rule 51 is not about controlling images of the Olympics, but controlling the Olympic Image. At the games, accredited athletes have access to many areas that the members of the press do not: the locker room, the playing field, the athletes' village. The members of the press have their own priveleges, but for all parties access and security are carefully controlled and segregated. I am heading into sportsBabel territory here, but perhaps the IOC's restrictions are simply designed to keep the two populations separate, except for designated mixing zones, and thus control the public's access to information.

I think that's part of the story; but I also think there is something else at work here. Why the special interest in blogs, and why now? Let's look at some history. This is not entirely a new story; or rather, it is new in the sense that blogging is new, but not new this year. The IOC first warned off bloggers in 2004, which generated a bit of outrage in the blogosphere. Interestingly, I have not been able to find any examples of the rule being enforced against an athlete blog. In 2002, on the other hand, this guide for AP Sports Editors explicitly claims that the IOC was OK with the unpaid publication of athlete diaries in the newspaper or on the internet:

Rule 59 in the IOC Charter stipulates that athletes can't act as journalists. They can't cover news or take photos, but they can write a diary – without pay, the IOC insists – for a hometown newspaper or Internet site.

So in 2002, having your diary published on a media outlet's web site was OK, as long as you did it for free. The new interpretation of the same rule in 2006 is that publishing on your blog might not be OK; or it might be, as long as you stick to recounting the day's events.

What, exactly, does the IOC have to fear from blogs that it doesn't fear from accredited journalists? Maybe they've only now recognized the power of self-publication, and it scares them. Could the IOC be worried about the weakening of Olympic Charter Rule 53?

No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.

With the proliferation of mobile internet access, the IOC can't contain the "Olympic area" as it used to. If they want to maintain an absolute grip on the athletes' freedom of expression, the boundaries set by Rule 53 will be inadequate. So if you make a political or social statement on your blog, they'll get you for practising "journalism" instead.

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