Two Tibetans arrested amid ongoing media restrictions

New York, March 18, 2009–Chinese public security officials in northwest Gansu province should release two Tibetan journalists detained in the past month or charge them with an offense, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. 

The public security bureau in Gannan, an area in the south of Gansu designated a Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, arrested Kunchok Tsephel Gopey Tsang on February 26, according to overseas Tibetan rights groups. Kunchok Tsephel, an online writer, runs the Tibetan cultural issues Web site Chomei, according to the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy. Kate Saunders, UK communications director for the International Campaign for Tibet, told CPJ by telephone from New Delhi that she learned of Kunchok Tsephel’s arrest from two sources. She has spent the past two weeks in Dharamsala and Kathmandu.

In an unrelated case, officials from the same bureau rearrested formerly imprisoned filmmaker Jigme Gyatso, according to the Tibetan Center and Saunders. The exact date of the arrest is not clear, but it is believed to have occurred around March 10, the 50th anniversary of the failed Tibetan uprising. Jigme Gyatso, a Buddhist monk, had been held from March to October 2008 before being freed on probation, Saunders said.

The reasons for the two detentions were not clear.

“These arrests are a disturbing indication that heavy punitive measures await Tibetans who publicize their version of life under Chinese rule. They are happening even though the international community widely condemned official handling of the media during last year’s rioting,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “Public security officials in Tibet should disclose the circumstances and reasons behind the arrests of Kunchok Tsephel and Jigme Gyatso or release them at once.”

The 1959 uprising preceded the Dalai Lama’s departure from Tibet; its anniversary provoked ethnic rioting in Tibetan areas just months before the Olympics last year. Foreign reporters remain officially barred from the region, and information is strictly controlled within China. Some journalists and overseas Tibetan groups have defied those restrictions to publicize a strong Chinese military presence and higher-than-usual restrictions on Internet access in Tibetan regions. CPJ’s Madeline Earp explored China’s media policies regarding Tibet in a March 12 post on the organization’s blog.

Saunders said Kunchok Tsephel was taken from his home. “There is serious concern for his welfare,” she said. Kunchok Tsephel was detained for two months in 1995, according to the Tibetan Center’s statement. It did not report the grounds for that arrest.  

Jigme Gyatso assisted filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen shoot the documentary “Leaving Fear Behind,” which detailed Tibetan opinions of Chinese rule. Dhondup Wangchen has been imprisoned since March 26, 2008, according to news reports. Tibetan groups believe he is being held in a detention center in Qinghai, the province immediately south of Gansu. Chinese authorities have not informed his family in Dharamsala of his location or of any indictment in the case.

Dhondup Wangchen’s cousin in Switzerland, Gyalong Tsetrin heard of Jigme Gyatso’s recent detention on March 16 from sources in the monk’s monastery, Labrang, southern Gansu, according to his colleague, Dechen Pemba, who reported the arrest to CPJ by e-mail. Dechen Pemba, who lives in London, is helping to publicize “Leaving Fear Behind.” “We are still trying to get more information about the circumstances and condition of his arrest,” she wrote. “We are not sure if it is a temporary measure around this sensitive period of several anniversaries in the month of March or a continuation of his previous detention.”

An earlier detention can be reimposed for violating the conditions of probation known as qubao houshen. Those conditions typically include restrictions on movement and communication, but they can vary, according to Saunders.