Tibetan monks lead a prayer vigil outside the Chinese Embassy in London Wednesday. (AFP/Justin Tallis)
Tibetan monks lead a prayer vigil outside the Chinese Embassy in London Wednesday. (AFP/Justin Tallis)

In high-tech China, low-tech media control works too

China’s investment in high-tech Internet surveillance technology is well known, and the byzantine rules of its Central Propaganda Department have inspired books and academic treatises.

But among the many tools in the box for media control, there’s one that’s very simple and low-tech: Keep journalists away.

That’s the main tool that the state is employing to suppress news of Tibetan protests against Chinese rule. International journalists have been barred from visiting the site of the protests.

When BBC reported today that four officials were fired for their handling of Tibetan unrest, the source was the Chinese state-controlled Tibet Daily.

And when The New York Times reported on January 27 that police fired on protesters in Sichuan province, the dateline was Hong Kong. Foreign journalists were turned away by security forces more than 60 miles away, the Times said.

Some news organizations have managed to do detailed reporting despite the physical restrictions. Radio Free Asia, which is based in Washington, D.C. but has a network of sources inside and outside China, reported yesterday that 2000 Tibetans gathered in mass demonstrations in southwest China.

Overseas advocacy groups have also filled some of the gap. One such group is the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, based in Dharamsala, India, the home of many exiled Tibetans. That group has reported that as many as 21 ethnic Tibetans have set themselves on fire in protest during the past year. In Sichuan province’s Aba prefecture yesterday, a 19-year old named Rinzen Dorjee was the latest to do so, the group said.

It’s not just international reporters who face travel restrictions. Chinese journalists, already hamstrung by censorship, are similarly barred from visiting places where news is happening. Radio Free Asia points to several microblog posts in the past week by Chinese journalists who have been turned away by authorities in Wukan, in Guangdong province.

In Wukan, a village uprising in protest of land deals resulted in the expulsion of local officials. On February 1, villagers cast a ballot for a new election commission, raising hopes that Wukan could provide a model for grassroots democracy. But Chinese journalists who have tried to cover the developments in Wukan have been subject to surveillance and monitoring, or simply told to go home, RFA reports, citing microblog posts.

Placing travel restrictions on journalists may have one unintended effect. It means that when it comes to unofficial news from China, activists and advocacy groups play a vital role in collecting and disseminating information.

Chinese authorities are hard on activists–even harder than they are on journalists. But by preventing reporters from doing their jobs, Chinese officials all but guarantee that activists are the ones reporting the news.