Reporters Without Borders is outraged by the systematic violation of press freedom and free expression in Tibet. Foreign journalists are finding it increasingly difficult to visit the Himalayan province and free speech is being suppressed even more ruthlessly there than in the rest of China. In the past few days, the editor of a Tibetan website has been arrested, a Tibetan culture website has been closed and SMS services have been suspended in parts of Sichuan province.
“We urge the Chinese authorities to allow foreign journalists to visit Tibet and the Tibetan regions
freely,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We also call on them to grant the Tibet-based media more editorial freedom and to stop jamming international radio stations broadcasting in the Tibetan language.”
The press freedom organisation added: “The crackdown launched after the events of March 2008 has never stopped. The authorities have gone to great lengths to impose the official version of events, denying the existence of Tibetan victims. The statements full of hatred for Tibetans made by certain Chinese officials are unacceptable. The government keeps reiterating the need to maintain stability, but this translates into a relentless persecution of dissidents in Tibet.”
The local authorities have meanwhile reinforced their media propaganda in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising on 10 March. Tibet Daily said in a 16 February editorial that China was engaged in a “life-or-death class struggle” with the “Dalai Lama clique and hostile western forces.”
In recent days, the Chinese authorities in the Tibetan regions and Beijing have systematically denied reports about incidents involving Tibetans. An official in the district of Litang, in Sichuan province, told Agence France-Presse on 18 February, for example, that there had been no demonstration in the district although several sources said at least 20 Tibetans were arrested after a peaceful demonstration there.
The foreign press has been unable to visit Tibet freely for decades and the controls were tightened after the events of March 2008. On the eve of the Tibetan new year and the 50th anniversary of the uprising, foreigners have been forbidden all access to Tibet until 1 April at least, making the presence of independent observers impossible. Foreign tourists in Lhasa have been asked to leave the Himalayan province as quickly as possible.
The Chinese have organised a few, very occasional press trips to Tibet. The last was in mid-February. But as journalists with the French TV production company Hikari said, “the criteria for choosing the media are not known and the media chosen cannot move about freely.” After visiting monasteries that have been emptied of their monks, Arnaud de La Grange of the French daily Le Figaro asked: “Why are journalists not allowed free access to Tibet, as they are to the rest of China?”
Journalists who try to do reporting in Tibetan regions without official guides often find themselves being obstructed and even roughed up in violation of the rules for foreign reporters that were renewed in October 2008. Two Hikari journalists were prevented from working and then detained in early February in Xiahe, the town in Gansu province where Labrang monastery is located. “Police took us to a hotel where we waited two hours before being driven several hundred kilometres to Lanzhou airport in a police car with the revolving roof light flashing.”
Before being expelled, the journalists saw that the authorities had set up road blocks and taken other security measures to prevent foreigners entering the area. New York Times reporter Edward Wong was held for about 20 hours by the police while investigating the military presence in Gansu province. Foreigners are not supposed to need permission to enter this region but the police refused to give any explanation, Wong said in his article. The Associated Press has meanwhile said its reporters were detained and questioned twice in the past few weeks in Tibetan regions.
When journalists arrive in Tibet, often on tourist visas, they find that Tibetans are scared to talk to them. “There is a general feeling of mistrust and paranoia as a result of the massive presence of security forces and the security cameras installed in many places in the city,” Reporters Without Borders was told by a European journalist who visited Lhasa in 2008. “The Tibetans know they are taking a big risk if they talk to a foreigner (...) Many Lhasa residents are convinced there are microphones and cameras at street corners, in shops and in taxis.”
Several sources said the Internet has been particularly slow in the Tibetan regions in the run-up to the 10 March anniversary. But calls for a boycott of the Tibetan new year, Losar, circulated widely on Tibetan blogs and chat forums. The Beijing media broadcast the festivities and hailed the calm and joy in Tibet after “50 years of democratic reforms.”
Kunchok Tsephel Gopey
Kunchok Tsephel Gopey, the editor of the Tibetan website Chomei (The Lamp), was arrested in Gannan, in Gansu province, on 26 February. Reporters Without Borders fears that he is being mistreated, as he was when he was arrested in 1995. Relatives said the police searched his house and confiscated his computer.
Created in 2005, Chomei (www.tibetcm.com) aims to promote Tibetan arts and culture. Despite being repeatedly censored by the authorities, the website has enabled young Tibetan poets and artists to express themselves.
Another Tibetan website, Tibet Culture (www.tibetcul.com), has been not been operational since 5 March. A message posted on the home page says the closure is to due to “technical reasons” and thanks Internet users for their “support.” Meanwhile, it has proved impossible to send SMS messages in the Tibetan parts of Sichuan province for the last few days. SMS messages were used to organise demonstrations last year.
The Chinese government has warned foreign government that might be tempted to criticise the military controls and crackdown in Tibet. “It is impossible for the West to cooperate with China if they do not follow an objective and clear position on Tibet,” said China Daily, one of the Communist Party of China’s mouthpieces, in its 5 March issue.
Reporters Without Borders has talked to Tibetans who recently arrived in northern India. Some mentioned warnings issued by local authorities about contacts with foreigners. “A few foreign journalists succeeded in coming to our village last year but the police threatened residents and told them not to speak to the journalists,” said a young man from Kham.
A monk who was jailed for five years said he continues to be monitored in Lhasa. “The police often follow me,” he said. “My ID document is checked in Internet cafés and many Tibetan websites are blocked. Tenpa Dhargye, a Tibetan who spent nearly five years in prison, said: “Anyone trying to access a free Tibet website is regarded as a Dalai Lama man and must be ready to end up in prison.”
Wave of convictions for “illegally sending information abroad”
Reporters Without Borders calls on the Chinese government to free all Tibetans detained for expressing dissident views or for sending information outside Tibet. Since March 2008, the press freedom organisation has noted a marked increase in the number of Tibetans being tried for sending information abroad, above all to Tibetan exile communities.
In trials held on 27 October and 7 November 2008, a Lhasa intermediate court convicted a total of seven Tibetans for participating in demonstrations and illegally sending information outside China. They were given jail sentences ranging from eight years to life. One, Wangdue, a former political prisoner who had helped campaign against HIV in Tibet, was given a life sentence for endangering state security. He had been held incommunicado from 14 March to 7 November by the Lhasa Public Security Bureau.
Another, Migmar Dhondup, was given 14 years in prison on the same charge of “endangering state security.” Phuntsok Dorjee was sentenced to nine years in prison followed by five years of loss of political rights on a “treason” charge for “illegally giving information” to people outside China. Tsewang Dorjee got eight year in jail on the same charge. Similarly, Sonam Dakpa and Sonam Tseten got 10 years and Yeshi Choedon got 15 years.
According to the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, an intermediate court in Kardze, a town in Dartsedo county (in Sichuan province), sentenced Ludrub Phuntsok, a 23-year-old monk and editor from Ngaba (Sichuan), to 13 years in prison on 23 October on a charge of “endangering state security.” A brilliant student at Amchok monastery and editor of the magazine Maseng Shedra (Flowers of Expression), he was arrested for taking part in a peaceful demonstration in Tibet on 16 March 2008.
Logyam, a Tibetan writer from Ngaba who wrote articles for Maseng Shedra, is serving a six-year prison sentence in Maowar prison in Sichuan for compiling and disseminating articles and speeches by the Dalai Lama. Aged 36, he has been held since 2005 and has reportedly been beaten repeatedly by prison guards for refusing to criticise the Tibetan spiritual leader.
The reinforced security forces in Tibet have arrested dozens of Tibetans in the run-up to the 10 March anniversary. Most of them are held in a former military base at Denggongtang, east of Lhasa, or have been forcibly sent back to their region of origin.