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China curbs Tibet information flow

March 26, 2008

By Amy Yee in New Delhi
The Financial Times
March 25 2008

China has succeeded in stemming the flow of information out of Tibet in
recent days, according to Tibetan activists in India who had relied on
e-mails and mobile phone calls to piece together the extent of a Chinese
military crackdown on pro-Tibet demonstrations.

Thousands of Tibetan exiles in India received live accounts as protests
erupted in Tibet and largely Tibetan regions of China. About 120,000
Tibetans live in exile in India.

But following the military clampdown and the exclusion of foreign media
from Tibet last week, e-mails and phone calls have been going
unanswered, leaving an information blackout as Chinese forces reputedly
continue to arrest Tibetan demonstrators.

The India-based Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy has
estimated that at least 70 Tibetans were killed in rioting in Lhasa and
protests in other parts of western China. The estimate – more than three
times the 22 people that Beijing says were killed – has been based on
phone calls, reports and photographs from the region.

Finding out what is happening on the ground is almost impossible, says
Urgen Tenzin, the centre’s executive director. Even if phone calls to
Tibet are answered, “people are saying, ‘Don’t call. It’s too
dangerous,’” he said.

China has sought to control information about Tibet since the crisis
erupted on March 10, at first censoring news at home, then shifting to
stopping the flow of news leaving the country.

The Chinese authorities often struggle to control the use of internet
and mobile phone communications in the early stages of sensitive news
events, but in the past – as apparently now with Tibet – they have
eventually been able to do so.

The communication flow out of Tibet reflects information technology’s
increasing role in conveying news across closed borders. Outside Tibet,
activists have been using websites to post updates, photographs and
videos. Some of the starkest images were e-mailed to monks at Kirti
monastery in Dharamsala, northern India, after protests on March 17 in
Amdo Ngawa, a region in China’s Sichuan province with a large ethnic
Tibetan population.

Kirti keeps close ties with its sister monastery in Amdo Ngawa, and
early last week received graphic photographs of Tibetans allegedly shot
by Chinese forces.

No one knows who took the pictures, but monks at Kirti quickly
transferred the bloody images onto CDs and distributed them to the media.

In the previous wave of violent unrest in Tibet, in the late 1980s, such
communication methods did not exist, and information trickled out
slowly, said Dakpa Tenphel of Gu-Chu-Sum, an association of former
Tibetan political prisoners.

Technology played a similar role in getting information out of secretive
Burma last year when monks staged anti-government protests.

Since then, Burmese activists appeared to have learnt how to circumvent
communication blocks, said Mr Tenzin. “We haven’t talked to them,” he
said. “But maybe we should.”

Additional reporting by Richard McGregor in Beijing
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
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