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China blocks Tibet coverage, Chinese journalists stifled as unrest continues

Guarding the roof: Chinese soldiers stand guard on a street in Lhasa, Tibet, March 18, 2008. China vowed on Wednesday to take the Olympic torch to Tibet despite deadly riots there and said it was in a "life or death struggle" over the Himalayan region with "the Dalai Lama clique". Picture taken March 18, 2008.Photo: Reuters / The Himalayas Journey Society / Handout

With international attention focused on the unfolding violence in Tibet, the Chinese media is confronting massive censorship, leaving the Chinese public largely in the dark.

The Chinese government has barred or expelled virtually all international reporters from the region, and the state media presents the government’s perspective, which blames the Dalai Lama for the violence, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said today.

Advocacy groups said the death toll in the Tibet Autonomous Region has risen as high as 80 since pro-independence demonstrations escalated into violence after a peaceful beginning on March 10. With a climate of self-censorship predominating in other domestic news outlets, independent confirmation of the number of deaths is not readily available.

“While the Chinese media has grown larger and more diverse in recent years, coverage of the Tibetan unrest makes clear that when push comes to shove the Chinese government will cling firmly to its deeply entrenched culture of censorship,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “These practices make a mockery of the commitments China made to the world when it was awarded the Olympic Games in 2001.”

International observers have turned increasingly to online accounts of events in Tibet, news reports said. But firsthand accounts and apparent footage of violence recorded by cell phone were difficult to independently verify. Sophisticated keyword filtering prevents many of these stories from reaching a Chinese audience, international media reported. Although “Tibet” was listed fifth on a list of most-searched-for terms on Chinese search engine Baidu’s on Monday, top results did not report the violence, according to the Wall Street Journal. Searches for “Tibet riot” produced links to articles that had been deleted, the Journal said.

In recent days, TV broadcasts have been blacked out, websites blocked or censored by China's keyword filtering system and reporters on the ground prevented from reaching the region, BBC News reported. The degree of censorship appears to be fluctuating and uneven, however.

On Friday—said to have been the worst day of violence in Tibet since demonstrations in 1989—the first few live interviews on BBC World with correspondent Daniel Griffiths were blocked from local transmissions. But repeat broadcasts of these interviews were allowed to go ahead.

Chinese analysts have accused Western media of sympathising with the Tibetan people, giving prominence to critics of China's policies and reporting that hundreds of Tibetans have been injured by the security forces, the BBC report said.

Chinese police have threatened or blocked foreign journalists from reporting on unrest in Tibet at least 30 times since deadly riots erupted there last week, reporters said on Wednesday. In one of the latest incidents, an Agence France-Presse (AFP) reporter was ordered off a bus in southwest China. The Foreign Correspondents Club of China said journalists had experienced interference in the cities of Beijing, Chengdu and Xining, as well as in Lhasa.

Speaking at an annual press conference on Tuesday, Premier Wen Jiabao confirmed that the region had been closed to foreign journalists, but said it would “be reopened to the world,” according to the Xinhua news agency.

"We were on a public bus. They stopped the bus, found us and took our passports," the AFP reporter said. "Then they took us back to their office and told us that they had to stop us out of concern for our safety and... because we were reporters." The officials who interrogated the journalists admitted that the travel ban was due to the unrest in Tibet.

Jonathan Watts, correspondent for the Guardian, was Monday prevented from going through a police check point in this border province. "After checking my passport, the police told me to go back and I had to leave the region. They had obviously expected the arrival of foreign journalists, because one of the policemen spoke English," he told Reporters sans Frontières (RSF).

At least six other foreign media have been forced to leave the regions where many Tibetans live. And Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that foreigners were being refused train and bus tickets in Gansu province or to be allowed to stay in Tongren, in the neighbouring province of Qinghai, where large numbers of Tibetans live.

A few foreign journalists are still inside Tibet, according to RSF, but are unable to move around normally because the cities are under police and army control. A reporter with the Economist, who is in the capital, Lhasa, had obtained permission to travel to Tibet before the start of the demonstrations.

Fifteen Hong Kong journalists representing six media organisations were expelled from Lhasa, accused by the authorities of "illegal reporting". They were then forcibly taken to the airport and put on a flight to Chengdu in Sichuan province. "They were not very polite. They came and looked at our computers, searching for video footage," Dickson Lee, a photographer on the South China Morning Post, told AFP. They had earlier got footage out of Lhasa of the riots which left nearly 80 dead, according to the Tibetan government in exile.

The Chinese authorities also forced most foreign tourists in Tibet to leave the province. Some of them who witnessed the first demonstrations had provided photos and footage of the protests and the crackdown, according to RSF. It is more and more difficult for the foreign press to gather news, particularly about the hunting down of demonstrators because telephone connections have been cut in Tibet. Foreign-based Tibetan websites, particularly phayul.com, have posted a number of accounts and footage of the events, thanks to networks within Tibet.

Trying to get access to unofficial news is very hard for Tibetans. All media are controlled by the Chinese Communist Party or public bodies. A few underground publications run by Tibetans, particularly monks, are circulated secretly, RSF reported.

Chinese and Tibetan journalists in this Himalayan province are forced to comply with state directives much more than in the rest of China. Only articles on official religious demonstrations are allowed. Party members are to be found in all key posts of the administration and media in Tibet, ensuring there is no chance of any editorial freedom. Articles are submitted to "journalist-censors" before being published.

Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA), based in the United States, along with Voice of Tibet (VOT), based in India, are the three main radio stations that broadcast programmes to Tibet in the Tibetan language, but these programmes are systematically jammed.

Date posted: March 19, 2008 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 646