CPJ condemns China’s detention of Tibetan filmmakers

New York, October 17, 2008–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the detention in western China of a filmmaker and his assistant, who have been held for nearly seven months after taping interviews with Tibetan residents about their lives under Chinese government rule. 

Police in the western province of Qinghai arrested filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen and assistant Jigme Gyatso, a Buddhist monk, in March, their production company, Filming for Tibet, recently disclosed.

The arrests came shortly after they sent footage filmed in Tibet to the production company, which is headed by a relative of Wangchen and is based in Switzerland. A 25-minute film titled “Jigdrel,” or “Leaving Fear Behind,” was produced from the footage and is available online. The film was intended to shed light on the lives of Tibetans in China in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

Information about the arrests–which have not been formally acknowledged by Chinese authorities–has only recently emerged in news reports. Kate Saunders, the U.K.-based Communications Director for International Campaign for Tibet, told CPJ this week that her group has confirmed the detentions. No formal charges against the two have been publicly disclosed.

The filmmakers completed taping shortly before peaceful protest against Chinese rule of Tibet deteriorated into riots in Lhasa and in Tibetan areas of China in March 2008. Foreign and local media were subject to an intense clampdown by Chinese authorities at that time. Several international reporters were expelled from Tibetan areas despite regulations–introduced specifically for the Olympics–that said they could work unrestricted anywhere in China.

Those relaxed regulations expired today. A Foreign Ministry official told reporters during a press conference Thursday that “related arrangements” for foreign journalists would be announced soon.

“The Olympic legacy for the media in China is far from the freedom that Beijing invited the world to imagine back in 2001,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia program coordinator. “Two filmmakers are in detention for conducting interviews in Tibet, and the legislation loosening restrictions on foreign reporters–which was in any case ignored when it really counted–appears to have expired.”   

The group Filming for Tibet was founded specifically to produce the documentary by Gyaljong Tsetrin, who left Tibet in 2002 and maintains contact with people there. Tsetrin told CPJ by telephone that he had spoken to Wangchen on March 25 but lost contact the next day. He learned of the detention only afterwards, speaking by telephone with several people, including relatives, he said, declining to name them because of the risk of reprisal to local sources by police.

Tsetrin told CPJ he had learned from multiple sources that Gyatso has been arrested on March 23. He told CPJ that one source saw Gyatso in a detention center in Linxia, known in Tibetan as Kachu, in Gansu province.

The arrests were first publicized when the documentary was launched. Reuters reported that “Leaving Fear Behind” was released at a screening for a small group of foreign reporters in a hotel room in Beijing on August 6. A second viewing was interrupted by the hotel management, Reuters said. The Reuters report and another by ABC News said Wangchen and Gyatsu had been detained shortly after videotaping was completed but did not provide further details.

Tsetrin unexpectedly received a call from Wangchen himself on July 13, he told CPJ. Wangchen told him by telephone from an undisclosed location that he had been held in Ershilipu Detention Center in Qinghai’s provincial capital, Xining, before being transferred to informal detention in Gongshang Hotel in the same city, he said. He did not call again, according to Tsetrin, and his whereabouts were unknown until August, when guards at the Ershilipu Detention Center confirmed to a family member that he was once again being held there.

Tsetrin’s colleague Dechen Pemba, a British Tibetan who heard about the film while living in Beijing in early 2008 and has since assisted Filming for Tibet in publicizing the project, provided CPJ with a report about the detentions and biographical information about the filmmakers by e-mail from London. The report said authorities told Wangchen’s brother-in-law on August 31 that the filmmaker was being held at the Ershilipu detention center. Authorities would not allow the brother-in-law to visit, the report said.

Wangchen was born in Qinghai but moved to Lhasa as a young man, according to his biography. He had relocated with his wife, Lhamo Tso, and four children to Dharamsala, India, before returning to Tibet to begin filming, according to a report published this month in the South China Morning Post. Tso told CPJ by telephone that she did not know where her husband was being held and had not received official notification of his detention.
“It is very difficult for Tibetans to go to Beijing and speak out there. So that is why we decided to show the real feelings of Tibetans inside Tibet through this film,” Wangchen says in the film.