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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

China's Everest torch plan draw journalists' concerns

April 24, 2008


BEIJING April 23, 2008 (AP) — China's new plan for press coverage of the
Olympic torch's ascent of Mount Everest has touched off a new controversy.

Health experts and media groups said Wednesday the plan will expose
reporters to undue health risks due to the altitude.

It also underscores Beijing's worries about reporting in Tibet and adds
another sour note to what Beijing hoped would be a grand feat — taking
the torch up the world's tallest peak. Like the entire torch relay, the
event has become more contentious after last month's protests of Chinese
rule in Tibet, where Everest stands.

Under the new schedule introduced by Beijing Olympic officials Tuesday,
reporters' time in Tibet would be halved, to about 10 days, most of it
in transit. The trip from Beijing, just above sea level, to the Everest
base camp at 16,800 feet would be compressed to three days — a third of
the adjusting time experts recommend to ward off the sometimes fatal
effects of sudden exposure to low oxygen levels at high altitude.

"To take a week or two, it's acceptable, and to take three days, it's
ridiculous," said Dr. Robert Schoene, a mountaineer and expert on
altitude sickness at University of California-San Diego. "If you take
low-landers who are healthy, almost everybody, at least 80 to 90
percent, would get acute mountain sickness in three days."

The plan drew complaints from most of the nine foreign media
organizations invited to Everest, including The Associated Press.

The journalists expressed concern about the health risks in a letter to
the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee. BOCOG replied it "was
carefully studying and considering" the request for more time to adjust
and agreed to leave Friday, 24 hours earlier than proposed.

It was not clear if the additional day would make a difference.
Organizers have said the mountaineering team at Everest base camp might
set out as early as Saturday, weather permitting. That would put the
group on track to reach the summit May 1, a holiday in China.

The rushed schedule underscores Beijing's unease over Tibet and fears
that the presence of foreign reporters could incite more protests.

Tibet and Tibetan communities across a large slice of western China
remain closed to foreign reporters following the widest, most sustained
uprising by Tibetans against Chinese rule in nearly 50 years. Twice in
the past month, government-arranged tours for foreign media have been
disrupted by protesting Buddhist monks.

"What is the Chinese government hiding behind Tibet's closed doors?" the
Paris-based media freedom group Reporters Without Borders said
Wednesday. The group and the New York-based Committee to Protect
Journalists cited the shortened schedule of the Everest torch relay as a
worrying sign of lack of access to Tibet.

Officials have been vague about when the ascent would be made, saying it
would likely be in May. The reticence is partly due to unpredictable
Himalayan weather at the 29,035-foot peak and partly to deter
protesters, who unfurled a pro-Tibetan banner at base camp last year.

In neighboring Nepal, on the southern side of the border-straddling
mountain, authorities said Wednesday they caught an American with a
"Free-Tibet" banner at its base camp and forced him to end his climb.

The Everest ascent — to be broadcast live in China by state-run TV — has
been celebrated as "the brightest point in the torch relay" by Chinese
media. A special torch was designed to keep the flame burning in
Everest's thin air, and a road was built on the permafrost to base camp.

Even before the recent protests, Beijing was reluctant to let foreign
media cover the ascent and only relented in January after International
Olympic Committee pressure.

BOCOG said the schedule changes were necessary due to foul weather at
base camp, and it played down reporters' concerns about altitude sickness.

"This is a high-altitude region and we don't want to keep you there for
too long," said BOCOG spokesman Shao Shiwei. When reporters cited
doctors' warnings about the increased danger of a shortened period to
acclimatize, Shao said: "If you stay up there too long it may be even
more dangerous to your health."

Some people suffer altitude sickness, or acute mountain sickness, even
at 7,000 feet, experiencing shortness of breath, fatigue and nausea. The
symptoms can become particularly severe above 14,000 feet, resulting in
swelling and the buildup fluid in the lungs or the brain that in some
cases can be fatal, according to experts.
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