China should abide by press pledges and allow coverage in Tibet

New York, March 17, 2008—The Chinese government should abide by its promises to the international community not to restrict the news media, and it should immediately halt efforts to block domestic and foreign coverage of protests in Tibet, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Chinese authorities expelled journalists with six Hong Kong broadcasters from the Tibetan capital of Lhasa today, according to the Hong Kong Journalists Association.

Cable TV, TVB and ATV networks were among the affected broadcasters, according to The Associated Press, which cited a TVB broadcast. The broadcast said TVB footage of the protests was deleted by police, AP reported.

The expulsion contravenes media regulations enacted on January 2007 that were designed to allow greater freedom to foreign journalists, as well as Hong Kong reporters, in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games. As part of its successful 2001 bid to host the Olympics, the government pledged to the International Olympic Committee that it would respect media freedom, but Beijing has failed to live up to that promise, CPJ found in a special report, “Falling Short .”

“China pledged to allow foreign and local journalists full freedom to report on news events when they were awarded the Olympics. But the media regulations are being violated and the pledges have not been met,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We call on Beijing to act on their promise to relax media restrictions and allow journalists to gather information about this important story.”

Chinese authorities have comprehensively censored domestic news coverage of the unrest in the Tibet Autonomous Region since protests began peacefully on March 10, according to international news reports. Authorities have also moved to block domestic access to foreign news reports. Blank screens replaced YouTube on Chinese computers on Sunday, after foreign news reports were uploaded to the video-sharing Web site the day before, AP reported.

A Los Angeles Times reporter covering a Major League Baseball exhibition game in Beijing said he could not access breaking news because CNN reports were periodically blacked out. Another Times report said the government selectively allowed the broadcast of images that supported the state’s interpretation of the violence. That interpretation blames the Dalai Lama and human rights organizations for trying to disrupt the Olympics, according to the report.
News from the state-controlled Xinhua News Agency described the protests as a disturbance undertaken by “a very small minority of people” and orchestrated by the Dalai “clique.” Comment functions for official articles were locked, according to the China Digital Times Web site.

Digital forums, online bulletin boards, and text messages were all subject to filters, according to the Global Voices Online and China Digital Times Web sites. The Web sites translated online comments that had not been deleted, many of which were nationalistic in tone and condemned the protesters.

Dozens of deaths are feared in the unrest, which began as peaceful demonstrations, according to the BBC. Thirteen “innocent civilians” died in the violence, according to the Chinese government; Tibetan exile groups say at least 80 protesters were killed, the BBC reported. Violence also spread into ethnic Tibetan areas of neighboring Qinghai and Gansu provinces.

Foreign journalists are allowed to interview anyone who gives consent, according to regulations that took effect on January 1, 2007. The rules, which were drafted by Chinese authorities to fulfill their promise to the IOC, are due to expire in October 2008, shortly after the Games come to an end. Before the rules were changed, journalists’ interviews and travel were supposed to be conducted with permission of local authorities.

In Tibet, authorities did not appear to follow the loosened rules now in effect. All foreign travel to the restive region was formally cut off on Saturday, according to Xinhua. “More than a dozen” journalists from Hong Kong had been able to enter Tibet on Hong Kong travel documents and report for several days before being expelled, Reuters reported. The TVB network reported on its Web site today that police had “arranged for 15 of its native Hong Kong staff to leave Lhasa.” Calls to TVB were not returned today.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters at a Thursday press conference in Beijing that responsibility for problems with the 2007 media regulations rests partially with journalists themselves. Foreign journalists “violated Chinese regulations, didn’t respect those they had interviewed, yet proceeded with interviews against the person’s wish,” said Qin, according to Xinhua.

CPJ testified before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China in February regarding China’s failure to meet its press freedom pledge.