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Chinas Everest torch plan draw journalists concerns
China Torch Everest 5543324
Climbers, left, walk up the snow slope along the North Ridge of Mount Everest in this May 2006 file photo. New, restrictive plans China has for foreign media covering the Olympic torch's ascent of Mount Everest expose reporters to undue health risks and show Beijing's worries about reporting in tense Tibet, health experts and media groups said Wednesday, April 23, 2008. - photo by Associated Press
    BEIJING — China’s new plan for press coverage of the Olympic torch’s ascent of Mount Everest has touched off a new controversy.
    Health experts and media groups said Wednesday the plan will expose reporters to undue health risks due to the altitude.
    It also underscores Beijing’s worries about reporting in Tibet and adds another sour note to what Beijing hoped would be a grand feat — taking the torch up the world’s tallest peak. Like the entire torch relay, the event has become more contentious after last month’s protests of Chinese rule in Tibet, where Everest stands.
    Under the new schedule introduced by Beijing Olympic officials Tuesday, reporters’ time in Tibet would be halved, to about 10 days, most of it in transit. The trip from Beijing, just above sea level, to the Everest base camp at 16,800 feet would be compressed to three days — a third of the adjusting time experts recommend to ward off the sometimes fatal effects of sudden exposure to low oxygen levels at high altitude.
    ‘‘To take a week or two, it’s acceptable, and to take three days, it’s ridiculous,’’ said Dr. Robert Schoene, a mountaineer and expert on altitude sickness at University of California-San Diego. ‘‘If you take low-landers who are healthy, almost everybody, at least 80 to 90 percent, would get acute mountain sickness in three days.’’
    The plan drew complaints from most of the nine foreign media organizations invited to Everest, including The Associated Press.
    The journalists expressed concern about the health risks in a letter to the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee. BOCOG replied it ‘‘was carefully studying and considering’’ the request for more time to adjust and agreed to leave Friday, 24 hours earlier than proposed.
    It was not clear if the additional day would make a difference. Organizers have said the mountaineering team at Everest base camp might set out as early as Saturday, weather permitting. That would put the group on track to reach the summit May 1, a holiday in China.
    The rushed schedule underscores Beijing’s unease over Tibet and fears that the presence of foreign reporters could incite more protests.
    Tibet and Tibetan communities across a large slice of western China remain closed to foreign reporters following the widest, most sustained uprising by Tibetans against Chinese rule in nearly 50 years. Twice in the past month, government-arranged tours for foreign media have been disrupted by protesting Buddhist monks.
    ‘‘What is the Chinese government hiding behind Tibet’s closed doors?’’ the Paris-based media freedom group Reporters Without Borders said Wednesday. The group and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists cited the shortened schedule of the Everest torch relay as a worrying sign of lack of access to Tibet.
    Officials have been vague about when the ascent would be made, saying it would likely be in May. The reticence is partly due to unpredictable Himalayan weather at the 29,035-foot peak and partly to deter protesters, who unfurled a pro-Tibetan banner at base camp last year.
    In neighboring Nepal, on the southern side of the border-straddling mountain, authorities said Wednesday they caught an American with a ‘‘Free-Tibet’’ banner at its base camp and forced him to end his climb.
    The Everest ascent — to be broadcast live in China by state-run TV — has been celebrated as ‘‘the brightest point in the torch relay’’ by Chinese media. A special torch was designed to keep the flame burning in Everest’s thin air, and a road was built on the permafrost to base camp.
    Even before the recent protests, Beijing was reluctant to let foreign media cover the ascent and only relented in January after International Olympic Committee pressure.
    BOCOG said the schedule changes were necessary due to foul weather at base camp, and it played down reporters’ concerns about altitude sickness.
    ‘‘This is a high-altitude region and we don’t want to keep you there for too long,’’ said BOCOG spokesman Shao Shiwei. When reporters cited doctors’ warnings about the increased danger of a shortened period to acclimatize, Shao said: ‘‘If you stay up there too long it may be even more dangerous to your health.’’
    Some people suffer altitude sickness, or acute mountain sickness, even at 7,000 feet, experiencing shortness of breath, fatigue and nausea. The symptoms can become particularly severe above 14,000 feet, resulting in swelling and the buildup fluid in the lungs or the brain that in some cases can be fatal, according to experts.

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