Chinese media stifled as Tibetan unrest continues

New York, March 18, 2008—With international attention focused on the unfolding violence in Tibet, the Chinese media are confronting massive censorship, leaving the Chinese public largely in the dark, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

The Chinese government has barred or expelled virtually all international reporters from the region, and the state media presents the government’s perspective, which blames the Dalai Lama for the violence.

Advocacy groups said the death toll in the Tibet Autonomous Region has risen as high as 80 since pro-independence demonstrations escalated into violence after a peaceful beginning on March 10. With a climate of self-censorship predominating in other domestic news outlets, independent confirmation of the number of deaths is not readily available. Chinese officials have reported 16, according to The Associated Press.

“While the Chinese media has grown larger and more diverse in recent years, coverage of the Tibetan unrest makes clear that when push comes to shove the Chinese government will cling firmly to its deeply entrenched culture of censorship,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “These practices make a mockery of the commitments China made to the world when it was awarded the Olympic Games in 2001.”

Meanwhile, the trial of prominent detained dissident Hu Jia on Monday was closed to media, according to international news reports. Eight Western diplomats who tried to attend were turned away because all the seats had been allocated, according to Reuters. Hu published an open letter drawing global attention to human rights concerns in the context of the Olympics and testified before the European Parliament before his arrest in December, according to The Washington Post.

International observers have turned increasingly to online accounts of events in Tibet, news reports said. But firsthand accounts and apparent footage of violence recorded by cell phone were difficult to independently verify. Sophisticated keyword filtering prevents many of these stories from reaching a Chinese audience, international media reported. Although “Tibet” was listed fifth on a list of most-searched-for terms on Chinese search engine Baidu’s on Monday, top results did not report the violence, according to the Wall Street Journal.  Searches for “Tibet riot” produced links to articles that had been deleted, the Journal said.  

Speaking at an annual press conference on Tuesday, Premier Wen Jiabao confirmed that the region had been closed to foreign journalists, but said it would “be reopened to the world,” according to the Xinhua news agency.

According to the AP, Wen declined to clarify the case against Hu Jia. Hu pleaded not guilty to subversion charges on Monday, Reuters reported.