China Cracks Down on Internet Freedom
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The Chinese government's overriding priority for the past week has clearly been to quell unrest among its Tibetan citizens. But the authorities have also made exhaustive efforts to ensure that as few people as possible, inside or outside China, hear any but the official version of that unrest.
Foreign journalists have been banned from traveling to Tibet and prevented by the police from reporting on protests by Tibetans in other Chinese provinces. Domestic newspapers, TV programs, and Internet sites have carried only articles produced by the official Xinhua news agency. News reports on international TV networks such as CNN and the BBC have been blacked out by censors.
The policy marks a sharp setback for moves the Chinese government had been making recently to be more open. In particular, the way foreign reporters have been prevented from reaching the scenes of protests runs counter to regulations introduced last year that were designed to ensure free reporting, in line with a promise the Chinese made to the International Olympic Committee.
"The foreign media's inability to conduct first-hand reporting is a very black mark tarnishing the government's promise," says Melinda Liu, president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China. The recent unrest was "a test" of the regulations, she added, "and in the last few days the government has got an 'F.' "
"Go no farther"
This reporter was stopped by police at a highway tollbooth on Saturday evening and told he could go no farther toward the town of Xiahe, in Gansu Province, where Tibetans had been demonstrating against the government.
Two dozen other foreign journalists suffered the same fate at other roadblocks around the town. Some who had slipped in before the blocks were established were later escorted out of Xiahe by the police. Elsewhere, two Canadian TV reporters were briefly detained by the police after filming in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery.
The director of the Foreign Ministry's information department, Hong Lei, who in the past has helped journalists being obstructed by local police, says he can only "cooperate with the local authorities. When there is some emergency, the local authorities have the authority to set up prohibited areas for outsiders," he says.
Banning foreign journalists from reporting on such emergencies serves "the peace, stability and unity of this country," he adds.
When Beijing was bidding for the Olympics in 2001, Wang Wei, head of the Games' organizing committee, promised the international media "complete freedom to report when they come to China." The new regulations say that "to interview organizations or individuals in China, foreign journalists need only to obtain their prior consent."
"The regulations are fine when you want to interview pandas, but they don't work when you want to talk to Tibetans," scoffs one longtime foreign correspondent in Beijing.
The police blanketed areas inhabited by Tibetans in provinces neighboring Tibet, such as Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan, in order to prevent foreigners from entering. On Monday, a police patrol even prevented this reporter from visiting the remote and peaceful village of Hongya, 60 miles southwest of here, where the Dalai Lama was born.
The security lockdown, though incompatible with China's international commitments, has precedents elsewhere. During the last Gulf War, the U.S. Army prevented reporters from working in areas of Iraq under its control unless they were embedded with US forces; the Russian Army imposed similar restrictions in Chechnya; and the Israeli army has often declared "closed military areas" in the occupied territories, though the zones from which they ban journalists temporarily are nowhere near as large as the areas closed to reporters here in recent days.
The Tibetan Autonomous Region, as Tibet is known, is off-limits to foreign journalists unless they are given a rarely issued special permit. A reporter for The Economist , who had been given such a permit before the violence broke out in Lhasa last Monday, is in the capital; another reporter is known to have reached there traveling as a tourist, but both are confined to their hotels.
When the Beijing bureau of the French TV station "FR2" applied for a permit last week, the Foreign Ministry official they approached told them that he could not handle it because his fax machine was broken.
Foreign journalists working from offices in designated diplomatic compounds in Beijing, meanwhile, report that their Internet access has slowed dramatically. The authorities have also imposed such a heavy blanket block on all Internet sites relating to Tibet that even the Tibetan government's official site is inaccessible from inside China.
You may read official reports only
The government has been even more successful in severely restricting Chinese citizens' access to information about the unrest. Newspapers and TV programs have carried only reports by the government-run Xinhua news agency, which has reported a significantly lower death toll than Tibetan exile groups and concentrated on attacking the Dalai Lama for allegedly organizing the violence.
Nor has Xinhua carried reports on any of the protests in provinces neighboring Tibet, restricting its coverage to Lhasa.
YouTube has been blocked for China-based Web surfers, as video of events in Lhasa was posted there. Internet news portals such as Sina.com and Sohu.com have also been forbidden to post any reports other than those from Xinhua, and the comments function under those reports has been locked.
Some sites with no relation to Tibet have kept chat rooms open, and to judge by comments on PCHome.net, a site dedicated to high-tech gizmos, the government need not fear public debate. The comments, such as "After we hold the Olympics we will get revenge" and "We should not be gentle, we should use violence against violence," are overwhelmingly hostile to Tibetans.
Though comments sympathetic to Tibetans have most likely been deleted by site moderators to avoid being closed down, some "internauts" have questioned the ban on public comment.
"Such big news. Why is discussion in China completely banned?" asked one anonymous post on the Tianya.com site, based in the southern island of Hainan. "All real Chinese should care about this."
The restrictions on information in China are likely to draw increasing attention in the run-up to the Olympic Games, says Ms. Liu, who is Newsweek's Beijing correspondent.
"I fear that they [the authorities] will circle the wagons and stonewall," she says. "And that is not in keeping with the international community's expectations of an Olympic host nation."
Peter Ford is a staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor.