BEIJING (AP) – China is relaxing decades-old restrictions on foreign reporters, announcing new regulations Friday that will give foreign media greater freedom to travel and report in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Even as the rules were made public, however, a Chinese court affirmed a prison sentence for a Chinese reporter.

The different signals underscore China’s mixed treatment of the media. The communist government hopes the Olympics will burnish the country’s international image, and knows positive foreign reports will help. At the same time, it has clamped down on domestic media and Internet essayists in the fear that unfettered reporting would weaken the Communist Party’s authority.

The new regulations temporarily abolish rules that require foreign reporters to obtain government approval for all travel and interviews. Under the new rules, which take effect Jan. 1 and run until mid-Oct. 2008, only the consent of the person to be interviewed is needed.

“When Beijing hosts the Olympic Games, we want to create an enabling environment for foreign journalists,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said in an hourlong briefing on the regulations.

Just a few blocks away, a Beijing court took five minutes to reject an appeal by Zhao Yan, a New York Times researcher, of his three-year prison sentence. Zhao was convicted of fraud, but press advocacy groups saw his case as a political vendetta for Zhao’s pre-Times career as a crusading investigative reporter and as a warning to Chinese reporters.

“What kind of judge are you?” Zhao asked the judge, according to the Times, which cited a courtroom witness it did not name. “Is this how you use the power the country gave you?”

Reporters Without Borders, the press freedom group, took note of China’s diverging treatment – tolerance for foreign media, intolerance for Chinese reporters.

“The campaigns against the archaic restrictions on the work of the foreign press have not been in vain,” said the organization, which has called China the world’s leading jailer of journalists, with 32 in prison as of January.

“But this positive development is eclipsed by today’s appeal court decision to uphold a three-year prison sentence for New York Times researcher Zhao Yan,” the group said in a statement. The distinction was evident in the newly announced regulations. While the Foreign Ministry said the new rules on foreign media covered foreign Internet journalists, the government last month reiterated that Chinese Internet sites not part of state-controlled news organizations are prohibited from reporting news. Still, the Olympic rules mark a step away from restrictions imposed on foreign reporters decades ago and tightened after the 1989 crushing of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement. The new rules also ease concerns among international media and the Olympic movement about how China will treat the 20,000 foreign media staff expected for the 2008 Games.

“They have understood how important it is to meet the standards of the Olympic Games,” said Kevan Gosper, a vice chairman of the International Olympic Committee’s coordination commission for Beijing.

At a meeting with IOC President Jacques Rogge and Gosper in October, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao “totally understood the importance of the press’ access to information,” Gosper said. He “also understood that the press is a judge on many of these things.”

Liu, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the government knows that, as with previous Olympics, reporters won’t limit their coverage to sports. He broadly interpreted the new rules – which cover reporting on the Games “and related matters” – to say foreign media could cover politics, economics and society.

Implementation, however, is unlikely to be friction-free in a country where foreign reporters are occasionally detained for a range of coverage, from AIDS epidemics in the countryside to protests by laid-off urban workers.

Though officials should no longer question reporters as they travel in China, Liu said police would still have the authority to intervene, especially during emergencies, protests and other incidents “that suddenly arise.”

“They will not ask what you are doing there unless there are concerns in terms of public interest and social order,” Liu said.

The new rules leave untouched significant restrictions and don’t address potential trouble-spots. Chinese nationals are still prohibited from working for foreign news organizations as reporters. Draft rules being debated by the government could ban reporting on protests and public health epidemics and levy fines on offending reporters and their companies, a tool used by Singapore to try to cow foreign media.

And the rules are also only temporary, raising the prospect of jarring post-Olympics changes.

“The new regulations should be permanent, not temporary,” said the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, a technically illegal organization because of restrictive registration requirements for social and professional groups. “The true value of the new regulations will depend on their implementation.”

AP-ES-12-01-06 1223EST

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