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China 30 May 2008

Tibet still closed to foreign press despite “unprecedented” post-quake openness in Sichuan

Reporters Without Borders welcomes the policy of transparency currently being applied to the foreign press in the areas hit by 12 May’s terrible earthquake and calls on the Chinese authorities to apply the same policy to the Tibetan regions, where the security forces continue to prevent travel by foreign journalists.

“The government is allowing the foreign media a remarkable and unprecedented level of freedom in Sichuan,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It should be extended to the Tibetan regions which the international press has not been able to visit freely since the Lhasa riots on 14 March. The government is clearly trying to prevent the foreign media from confirming the few reports emerging about arrests of Tibetans and reeducation campaigns being carried out since then.”

The press freedom organisation has spoken recently to properly accredited foreign journalists who have been turned back when they tried to enter Tibetan areas. “I took one of the roads that goes from Chengdu towards the Tibetan plateau but police at a checkpoint told me to turn round,” said a European reporter who did not want to be named.

The repression in Tibet is still taking place behind closed doors. The few reports coming out are being disseminated by Tibetan news media based abroad or by pro-Tibetan organisations. Radio Free Asia reported on 28 May that a Tibetan, Nyima Drakpa, was arrested in mid-April in Sichuan province for providing information to journalists based outside China.

Reporters Without Borders also condemns the harassment of Chinese who adopt a pro-Tibetan stance. After the sanctions applied to columnist Chang Ping in early May, two lawyers, Teng Biao and Jiang Tianyong, have just had their licence renewals refused because they signed an open letter in April calling for detained Tibetans to be given the legal assistance prescribed by Chinese law.

Tibetan writer and blogger Tsering Woeser has been the target of threats and hacker attacks because of her articles about the situation in Tibet. Her blog and Skype (Internet telephone) account were hacked on 27 May. “My password was changed and I can no longer connect to my account,” she told Reporters Without Borders, referring to her Skype account. “As far as I can tell, the hacker is already in communication with some of my contacts, which puts them in a situation as dangerous as mine.”

Woeser, whose books have been banned and who lives in Beijing, has been placed under house arrest and has been prevented from travelling abroad. Her husband, fellow writer Wang Lixiong, has also been harassed by the authorities.

“The Propaganda Department should stop telling the Chinese media what position they must take on the 12 May earthquake’s terrible toll of nearly 70,000 dead and 18,000 missing,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Chinese journalists should be as free as their foreign colleagues to write about the angry reactions of the parents of the thousands of children who were killed when their poorly-built schools collapsed.”

In the first few days after the earthquake, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China received reports from journalists of altercations with the security forces.

Finnish journalist Sami Silanpaa, the correspondent of the Helsingin Sanomat daily, said six foreign journalists were denied access to Beichuan, a city near the epicentre, two days after the earthquake although Chinese journalists were allowed into the area on the same day. Silanpaa was turned back at roadblocks five times in the days following the quake, including at the entrance to Dujiangyan and Mianyang.

Katri Makkonen, a journalist working for the Finnish TV station YLE, was briefly detained by the police while trying to get to Beichuan but was pleasantly surprised by the favourable reception she found at other checkpoints.

Jonathan Watts, a reporter for the London-based Guardian, was prevented from working freely in the Pingwu region in mid-may. In Niufei, he and his photographer were covering the departure of soldiers for a school buried under rubble when all the material they had shot and recorded was confiscated. Watts was also prevented by police from entering a refugee camp in Mianyang, unlike local journalists, who were allowed in. An Associated Press reporter and his photographer were briefly detained in Loushui on 15 May after seeing soldiers dig a mass grave. Officials interceded to obtain their release.

Hundreds of journalists subsequently enjoyed a great deal of freedom in the field.

The Chinese media, on the other hand, are not free to cover the protests by the parents of children killed by collapsing schools. The Propaganda Department is still urging the media to continue to focus on the efforts and heroism of the Chinese rescue workers, including the soldiers. Propaganda chief Li Changchun said on 17 May that “propaganda’s ideological front line” must be to deeply and widely publicise the decisions of the Party central committee and government on managing the earthquake’s aftermath.

The Beijing headquarters of the Propaganda Department (or Publicity Department, as it is now officially called) initially went so far as to forbid the national media to send reporters to Sichuan, but a number of newspapers immediately ignored the order.

The liberal press, including the business magazine Caijin, has covered the sensitive subjects despite the bans. And some government media, including the news agency Xinhua and the local television station Sichuan TV, have carried reports taking a very different line from the propaganda on the national station CCTV.

Finally, many eye-witness accounts and photos from Sichuan have been posted on the Internet without being subject to any prior censorship and there have been comments on online discussion forums about the corruption and inefficiency of local politicians. On the other hand, a search of “Sichuan” and “school” on the search engine Baidu yields no articles about the protests by the parents of victims although they have been widely reported in the foreign media.




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