The Olympic torch relay has become a media event in its own right [AFP]

The Listening Post host Richard Gizbert looks at the media battle being waged between China and the West over the Olympic torch relay.

From the day it was first lit, in Greece, protesters have been drawn to the Olympic torch like moths to a flame.

The media freedom group Reporters Without Borders was at Olympia, disrupting the ceremony with a redrawn, Olympic flag, turning the five famous rings into handcuffs.

Protesters tried to extinguish the torch in London, forced it into hiding in California and tried to wrest it from a Chinese wheelchair athlete in France.

It was not what the International Olympic Committee (IOC) or the Chinese government had in mind when the relay began.

As Olympic historian Philip Barker says, the "Olympic torch is supposed to be a symbol of peace and harmony.

"You have to say that the image has not been good. The problem is that the relay has become so big that it has become a media event in its own right."

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Instead, images of the protests were beamed around the world and China's human rights record and the Tibet issue was in the spotlight.

The circus surrounding the torch came after the uprising in Tibet last month and the outcry provoked by the Chinese government's response.

"If there had been an uprising on March 10th that had been squashed and that was the end of it and a month later the torch was in London and we were protesting it would have harder to connect the dots," Anne Holmes, the acting director of the Free Tibet group, says.

Public relations

"As awful as what is going on in Tibet is, the Chinese government played right into our hands."

Yan Huang, a former Chinese journalist, says quite simply that her government is not very good at doing public relations.

"And we should learn a lesson from this event and see what the other side did," she says. "The free Tibet movement - they were very skilful in getting involved in public relations."

The coverage of the torch story mirrors the divisions that exist between the West and China.

When the American network CNN showed the protests and talked about Beijing's human rights record - the Chinese countered by rallying support on websites like anticnn.com and truefacewesternmedia.com.

They also organised online petitions with millions signing on in support of their government and their games.

"Western media has been so biased especially with any topic related to China," Yan Huang says.

"Media practitioners are known as kings without crowns. They have got huge power in telling people what they should know and what they should not know but on the other side they are having power without responsibilities."

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Tse Ring Tashi, the Dalai Lama's European representative, says although the Chinese government claims Western media is biased to the Chinese that is not necessarily true.
 

Security has been high
on the torch's journey [AFP]

"We have seen some western reporters say things we feel is not true but we don't make a big issue of it. Because that is how media works," he says.

As the torch made its way around the world, the print spilled barrels of ink on the story and Western newspapers were beyond the reach of either Beijing's or the IOC's spin machines.

In London, the left-leaning tabloid, the Daily Mirror described it as "flaming injustice" and said: "The oppressive security needed to protect the Olympic torch in London should ram home to China's dictators what the world really thinks of them."

In France, the centre-right Le Figaro offered words of comfort to the Chinese government.

"While the defence of Tibetans is a noble cause, the gesticulations that we have witnessed over the holding of the Olympic Games are exaggerated," it said.
 
But The Washington Post used its editorial page to denounce the government in Beijing saying "the Chinese are seeing for themselves how public opinion around the world has been repulsed by their government's cynical and amoral foreign policy".

The Chinese media saw it differently.

The China Daily, headline said: "San Franciscans denounce disruptions."

Propaganda tool

Meanwhile the state-run news agency Xinhua painted a generally positive picture of the relay, saying there were only a handful of protestors and that "the Olympic torch relay in San Francisco 'successful'".

The fact the torch relay has become a propaganda battle is appropriate, in a way, since the first torch relay, in 1936, took place in Nazi Germany, whose propaganda machine turned torch lit parades into an art form.

"What you have to remember the games weren't awarded to Adolf Hitler's regime. They were awarded to Germany in 1931 before the Nazis came to power," Barker says.

"When they [Nazis] came to power they saw the possibilities. The spectacle that was beginning to emerge appealed to the Nazis."

So it could be said that the torch has come full circle, and in 2008, it is again the focus of a global propaganda battle. 

"Obviously it is good for the free Tibet movement and good for human rights generally," Anne Holmes says. "We can't just pretend there is nothing political about these Olympics."

Yan Huang says there has always been a media war and that her country is "far from perfect".

"I know we have our own problems, I won't deny that. But that cannot be the only excuse for the Western media to attack China 24 hours a day."

The torch is on its way to Beijing, via Tibet. And then there are the games themselves. As they say in the news business, this is one of those stories that is going to run and run.

Watch Part 1 of this week's The Listening Post
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