29 February 2012

Authorities put Tibet on virtual lockdown

Tibetans in northwest China marked a tense traditional new year with prayer, the sounding of gongs and subdued defiance in the wake of a string of self-immolations and protests against Chinese control
Tibetans in northwest China marked a tense traditional new year with prayer, the sounding of gongs and subdued defiance in the wake of a string of self-immolations and protests against Chinese control
Carlos Barria/REUTERS

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In response to a growing number of ethnic Tibetans setting themselves on fire, China has imposed a media blackout on Tibet and the provinces of Sichuan and Qinghai, say Reporters Without Borders (RSF), PEN American Center and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

According to RSF, at least 15 monks have set themselves on fire in the past year to protest Chinese rule and religious repression - "yet little information about this, or about the recent demonstrations in Tibet, has emerged." This the largest outbreak of unrest among ethnic Tibetans since the 2008 riots in Tibet's capital, Lhasa.

IFEX members say that foreign media organisations have been barred from covering the events. PEN American Center reports that in January, authorities prevented a CNN crew from getting into Seda County in Sichuan Province, the epicentre of violent clashes with police that resulted in at least two Tibetans killed. Authorities regularly use excuses of bad weather or poor roads to restrict access, says RSF.

Other foreign journalists report being followed by unidentified people, interrogated for hours and escorted by police back to the airport, forced to delete images from their cameras and having their research and writing materials seized.

According to regulations introduced in preparation for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, foreign journalists are free to interview all individuals in China once they have obtained the interviewee's consent.

"However, having witnessed an increasing number of cases of foreign journalists being barred from reporting on stories of great public interest, we have reason to believe that Chinese authorities no longer intend to honour these promises," said IFJ Asia-Pacific.

Local journalists too have been targeted. For instance, RSF reports that more than 20 police officers went to the home of Gagkye Drubpa Kyab, a journalist and teacher, in Serthar County in Sichuan on 15 February and arrested him. He remains in detention.

Tibetan language print and copy shops have been shuttered, added PEN American Center.

In the meantime, the government has organised a "veritable disinformation campaign," says RSF. It uses pro-government media outlets to play down the disturbances and accuse the international community of interfering.

In the Seda case, the Chinese authorities blamed Tibetan separatists for inciting the violence, and asserted that security officers fired in self-defence after "mobs" stormed police stations and smashed store windows, according to news reports.

The other battlefield is the Internet, "a secondary victim of the crackdown," says RSF. "Connections are cut off, access is blocked and content linked to the unrest is removed."

Earlier this month, authorities disrupted Internet and mobile phone service in a more than 50-kilometre area around Seda County, reports PEN American Center.

Discussion forums and blogs in the Tibetan language, such as Sangdhor.com and Rangdrol.net, as well as websites of exile media organisations, have been blocked since the beginning of the month, reports RSF.

And the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports that online mentions of Tibetan protests and self-immolations have been disappearing in China, as documented by the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project.

RSF says that citizen journalists and local community networks, which have taken the place of traditional media channels, have been particularly targeted. Investigative journalist Liu Zhiming, who posted a message about a demonstration on 23 January on China's social media site Sina Weibo, had his account deleted.

Self-immolation may be gaining popularity as a form of dissent that is spreading beyond the Tibetan clergy. Recent news reports suggest that the latest self-immolations in Seda involved three lay people, most likely herders.

"There is a lot of frustration in the Tibetan areas," Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University in New York, told "The New York Times". "People are saying they aren't being listened to; the government didn't respond constructively to the protests in 2008 and didn't respond constructively to the whole year we've seen of self-immolations."

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