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China 16 September 2008

Two Tibetan documentary filmmakers held for past six months in Tibet

Reporters Without Borders calls on the Chinese authorities to release Dhondup Wangchen, who made a documentary about Tibet, and Jigme Gyatso, his friend and camera assistant. They have been unjustly detained since March 2008 for filming interviews with Tibetans, above all in the Amdo region of Tibet

"The case of Wangchen and Gyatso is a tragic example of what happens when Tibetans take the risk of trying to interview people about the situation in the province," Reporters Without Borders said. "The Chinese government decided to reopen Tibet to foreign tourists, and now it must show clemency towards those who have been detained solely because of what they or others said."

Wangchen’s wife, Lhamo Tso, told Reporters Without Borders that she still does not know exactly why they are being held. A resident of the northern Indian city of Dharamsala, Tso said her husband was reticent about the purpose of his proposed long trip when he set off for Tibet in October 2007. After losing touch, she was told at the end of March that Wangchen and Gyatso were arrested on 23 March in the Siling area.

The film produced from what Wangchen and Gyatso filmed is a 25-minute documentary entitled Leaving Fear Behind (www.leavingfearbehind.com). It shows Tibetans in the Amdo region expressing their views on the Dalai Lama, the Olympic Games and Chinese legislation. Wangchen managed to send his videocassettes out of Tibet before he and Gyatso were arrested. Neither of their families has had any news of them for the past five and a half months.

Wangchen was born in the Amdo region in 1974. A Buddhist monk, Gyatso is from the Kham region.

Tso told Reporters Without Borders that her husband has always been "a very active man who has always wanted to do something for Tibet." Before his arrest, Wangchen said: "It is very difficult for Tibetans to go to Beijing and express themselves freely. This is why we decided to show the real feelings of the Tibetan people in a documentary."

Screened for foreign journalists in Beijing during the Olympic Games, the documentary shows Tibetans expressing their disillusionment with the erosion and marginalisation of the Tibetan language and culture, the destruction of the nomadic lifestyle by forced resettlement, the lack of religious freedom and attacks on the Dalai Lama, and the Chinese government’s broken promises before the Olympic Games to improve the situation in Tibet.

In Dharamsala, Tso has to take care not only of her four children but also her husband’s parents. "I get up in the night to bake bread which I myself then sell," she said. "I feel the pressure mentally more than physically (...) I have to cope with a lot of difficulties but the biggest problem is the fact that my husband is in prison."

Tso said her husband was aware of the risks he was running when he made the documentary. "Yes, he knew," she said. "But that does not mean he does not love his family and his parents. He did it for the Tibetan people and Tibet."

Ngawang Choephel, a Tibetan ethnomusicologist and documentary filmmaker, was released on "medical grounds" from Chengdu prison in China in 2002 after being held for six years. He had been given an 18-year-sentence on charges of subversion, spying and counter-revolutionary activities.

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