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International Olympic Committee Criticizes Sochi Organizers Over Press Freedom

"In the run-up to Olympic games, this amounts to a failing grade," said one leading human rights advocate.

Posted on January 31, 2014, at 10:56 a.m. ET

Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters

The International Olympic Committee called on Russian organizers of the upcoming Olympic games to respect press freedom and freedom of the speech in a letter top IOC officials sent Russian LGBT activists earlier this week.

Though written in the careful language of the IOC, human rights advocates said it reads as a slap at local organizers of the games, who have sought to restrict political expression — such as statements opposing Russia's so-called "homosexual propaganda law" — during the Olympic games.

"Participants at the Olympic Games may of course express their opinions and will have many opportunities to do so whilst respecting the Olympic Charter, for instance to answer questions if asked in a press conference or mixed zone, in a media interview or on social media and discussing with their fellow athletes and others — to name but a few," wrote the IOC in a letter addressed to Anastasia Smirnova, coordinator of a coalition of six LGBT organizations that met with IOC President Thomas Bach in December.

The letter is dated December 16, but Smirnova told BuzzFeed it was only sent to them earlier this week. It is being made public following conflict between IOC President Thomas Bach and the chair of the local organizing committee for the Sochi games, Dmitry Chernyshenko, over whether athletes will have the right to speak out about issues like the Russian law prohibiting "promoting non-traditional sexual relationships to minors."

Bach said during a Monday press conference that although political statements could not be made on the medal stand, "the athletes enjoy freedom of speech" and they are "absolutely free" to "make a political statement" in a press conference.

Chernyshenko contradicted him during a press call on Wednesday, saying political expression would only be tolerated in the protest zone, which is many kilometers from the Olympic Village.

"I don't think they are allowed by charter to express those views that [are] not related to the sport at the press conference room," Chernyshenko said.

While the IOC once again declined to take a clear stand against the propaganda law in the letter to LGBT activists, the stand for press freedom is significant in opening space for actions against the law during the games, human rights advocates said.

"They haven't been making the point about press and freedom of speech and the athletes before," said Smirnova. "I think this is a very important piece."

Especially following the back-and-forth between Bach and Chernyshenko, passages from the letter to LGBT activists read like a slap at the game's organizers, said Human Rights Watch's Minky Worden, who called special attention to the IOC's statement that "Sochi pledged, in its bid book, excellent working conditions for the media at the Games and the IOC is working with Sochi 2014 to achieve these objectives."

"As any parent knows, when you get a report card, 'exceeds expectations' is good, [but] … 'working towards expectations' is a failing grade," said Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch. "And there are good reasons for this. The condition for journalists in Sochi--both local and international--have been abominable."

She added that the IOC's "public statements and allowing political speech is a direct slap at the Russians for passing a law that puts the IOC in an impossible position of an Olympics where many will feel compelled to defend their identity."

Correction: Chernyshenko made his comments during a press call on Wednesday. An earlier version of this story said the call was held Thursday.

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