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China tries to cut information flow from Tibet

June 18, 2009

The Age/AFP
March 19, 2008
 
An image from a mobile phone of unrest in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa that was sent to a resident living in the Chinese city Linxia.
 
Blogs, chatrooms and mobile phones have helped information about Tibetan protests to stream out faster than ever, but China is also harnessing technology, as well as fear, to stem the flow.
 
Internet users, journalists and campaign groups are all scrambling for information as they try to build up an independent picture of deadly protests and clampdowns in Tibet and elsewhere in China in the past few days.
 
Jeremy Goldkorn, editor of Danwei.org, which monitors China's media, said that new technology has forced the authorities to promptly acknowledge events like the Tibetan protests.
 
"They cannot lockdown a disaster anymore," Goldkorn told AFP.
 
"Before the internet, it was possible in China to isolate an area because ordinary people did not have access to information, but that is not possible now."
 
Tenement Palm, a China blog, has translated conversations between Chinese netizens on what are called microblogging sites, where short messages from mobiles are published to selected friends or more widely.
 
The blog has collected dozens of Chinese-language entries, many from people who say they are inside Lhasa, although the accuracy of the information is often very difficult to ascertain.
 
"Lhasa is rioting ... school was closed ... fighting in the city is brutal," said one entry, posted on Saturday, according to the site.
 
Travel blog forums, often used for people to give tips for bypassing bureaucracy or recommending places to see, have also become a useful source, posting photos or linking to first-hand accounts.
 
However, some forums have also been used as a propaganda tool for China, which has allowed angry posters to vent their spleen against Tibetans.
 
"There is only one word for these separatists who are trying to destroy our happiness - kill," wrote a surfer from the southwestern city of Chongqing on popular portal Sina.com.
 
Although such vitriol from both sides has been spouted with abandon, solid witness accounts are much more difficult to obtain, and digital images posted online have helped fill the void.
 
The video-sharing website YouTube showed one recording of a huge protest near Labrang monastery, in Sichuan, which validated eyewitness reports of 4000 people.
 
However, the site has been shut down in China since Sunday to prevent the spread of such images, including clips of the violent unrest in the Tibetan capital Lhasa that triggered a virtual lockdown of the city.
 
But the sheer volume of information means that verifying, rather than gathering, information has become the biggest headache.
 
Kate Saunders, from the International Campaign for Tibet, said the information flow was markedly different compared to the 1989 anti-Chinese protests in the region.
 
"There is no way that the news would take so long to get out now," she told AFP from London.
 
"(The amount of information) is unprecedented, but it is not always helpful. It is much easier to make mistakes with instant information."
 
Technology can also be a means of stifling the flow.
 
"We foreign reporters all take precautions. Some of us swap our SIM cards in our mobile phones, or just turn them off," Tim Johnson, the Beijing bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers, said on his blog from Sichuan.
 
"That way, authorities cannot triangulate mobile phone signals and figure out our locations."
 
One Westerner, who has spent the past two years in Tibet but is now outside the country, has used several blogs and microblogs to contact people inside Tibet.
 
But the source said that a lot of the information remains difficult to verify.
 
"To be honest, the majority of (good) information is off direct phone conversations on either landlines or mobile phones," the Westerner, who did not want to give their identity to protect sources inside Tibet, told AFP.
 
"The best weapon that the Chinese use are fear and retribution. Not a single Tibetan will say anything to me. The mere fact you have received or made international calls could lead to interrogation."
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