China eases restrictions for foreign journalists

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 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.

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.