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A tricky five months in China

April 8, 2008

Channel 4 News, UK
07 Apr 2008
By: Lindsey Hilsum

Five months before the games start, we've hit the wall: the Chinese
government will not tolerate challenges to its authority.

It's been a tricky week in China for "the Western Goebbels Nazi media".
I quote the new website www.anti-cnn.com, established to villify
international coverage of the unrest in Tibet.

Apparently founded by a university student, the website has been
enthusiastically quoted by the state-controlled China Daily. It also
seems to have the approval of the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman,
Qin Gang, who said on Thursday that if any good were to come out of the
"unfortunate Tibet incident" it would be "to show the Chinese people
what some Western media's so-called fair and objective style is really
like".

As he spoke, 26 journalists chosen by the government were on a conducted
tour of Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. The Foreign Ministry says there are
700 foreign journalists in China, so the 674 of us left behind were
pretty grumpy, comforting ourselves that it would be - as the Americans
say - a dog-and-pony show. Then a miracle happened.

Lhasa has been locked down since 14 March, when several days of largely
peaceful demonstrations by monks culminated in a day of violent rioting,
in which Tibetan youths set upon Han Chinese and Hui Muslims, killing
several and burning their property.

The Chinese government wanted to prove that 1) Everything is peaceful
now 2) The riots were instigated by "the Dalai clique" and 3) Tibetans
are loyal to the Communist Party of China.

But as the journalists were ushered into the Jokhang temple, in central
Lhasa, 30 young monks burst in weeping and shouting that they had been
falsely accused of violence, and imprisoned in the Jokhang.

They said they loved the Dalai Lama, and that the people praying at the
temple were Communist cadres placed there for show, not real Buddhist
worshippers. It was all on camera.

In China, CNN and BBC World run with a few seconds delay so the
government can black out anything awkward, but it is somewhat
embarrassing to censor your own official press tour. Those with
satellite TV therefore saw what happened, but most Chinese get only
state TV.

On the news that night they saw a monk from the Jokhang management
greeting the reporters, and no mention of the protest. The report went
on to explain that the western media are "especially biased and
prejudiced when it comes to reports on Tibet issues".

The Chinese, of course, have a point. There is a simplistic "Dalai Lama
good, Chinese government bad" tendency in some reporting, and
journalists make mistakes.

A news agency photo of Chinese policemen rescuing someone from the mob
was erroneously captioned as an arrest.

A German TV station showed footage of police beating Tibetan rioters in
Nepal, with voice-over saying it was in Lhasa. (That chief sub editor,
video, should write a self-criticism.)

Michael Portillo's opinion piece in the Sunday Times comparing the
Beijing Olympics in 2008 with Berlin in 1936 was over the top.

But this is all a distraction from the real issues, namely that these
are the most significant protests in China since Tiananmen Square, and
journalists are being prevented from covering them.

Not only are we barred from Tibet, we have also been prevented from
reporting in the provinces of Gansu, Sichuan and Qinghai where Tibetans
have been protesting.

The previous Saturday, the Channel 4 News team, like many others, headed
for the Gansu town of Xiahe, arriving just after a demonstration.

We managed to get some pictures and interviews - including one with the
requisite hapless tourist who was wandering around in a peaceful dream
when she suddenly found herself in among riot police and demonstrators.
By the next morning, police were preventing any foreigners getting in.

As part of its bid for the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese government pledged
to open up to the international media, and in the past year has allowed
foreign journalists more freedom.

But, five months before the games start, we've hit the wall. These
protests crossed a line - the Chinese government will not tolerate such
challenges to its authority and the sovereignty of the state. Nor, it
seems, will it tolerate reporting which it fears may tarnish the image
of "harmonious development" it is trying to promote.

It's been a tricky week. I suspect it's going to be a tricky five months.

This article first appeared in the Press Gazette
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
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