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AUTHORITIES BLACK OUT INDEPENDENT COVERAGE OF DEADLY PROTESTS

The Chinese authorities have made it nearly impossible for independent journalists to cover the protests in Tibet and in neighbouring provinces by imposing "suffocating restrictions" on the press, from expelling foreign reporters to censoring news coverage.

Protests against 57 years of Chinese rule in Tibet started by Buddhist monks in the provincial capital Lhasa last week have turned into the largest demonstrations in nearly two decades and have triggered a violent reaction from the Chinese authorities.

Early eyewitness accounts and photos posted on the Internet portrayed a chaotic scene in Lhasa on 14 March, with security forces beating protesters, firing live ammunition, and surrounding monasteries, and crowds attacking security forces and setting fire to Chinese shops.

But reports of the number of people killed as a result of the protests cannot be verified because of official restrictions on reporting from Tibet. Tibet's government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India says as many as 100 people have been killed and 1,000 arrested. China's state media reports that 16 civilians have been killed.

According to news reports, China's government in Tibet has accused the supporters of Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, of inciting the unrest to sabotage the Beijing Olympics. The authorities have imposed a curfew in Lhasa, deploying riot police to the streets. Freedom House reports that security forces are conducting house-to-house searches, rounding up hundreds of Tibetans suspected of participating in the protests. Troops have also been sent to quell sympathy protests that have spread to the neighbouring provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu.

Since last week, the authorities have refused to grant foreign correspondents permits to enter Tibet for "safety" reasons, despite China's pledge in January 2007 to allow foreign journalists in China to freely carry out their work ahead of the Olympic Games, say Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Tourists, who were some of the first to provide footage of the crackdown, are also being denied access, says RSF.

At least 25 journalists, including 15 from Hong Kong, have been expelled from Tibet and other areas of unrest for "illegal reporting", reports RSF. IFEX member the Hong Kong Journalists' Association (HKJA) says reporters from at least six Hong Kong media groups were ordered to leave Lhasa by plane. HKJA has called on the authorities to reconsider the expulsions.

The authorities have also censored foreign news and Internet reports from Tibet in mainland China. News reports on the issue on BBC and CNN have been periodically blacked out, and their websites made regularly inaccessible over the past few days, "leaving China's citizens in the dark about the unfolding tragedy," say PEN centres in Canada, the U.S. and China.

YouTube.com has been censored in China since 16 March after dozens of videos about protests in Tibet appeared on the popular video-sharing website, reports RSF. Internet users are presented with a black screen or the message "incorrect address" when trying to access the site.

There have also been reports of significant interruptions of telephone and Internet service in Lhasa and other Tibetan areas since 10 March, impeding the flow of first-hand reports as the protests spread, says PEN.

Meanwhile, rather than try and contain information, the Chinese state media are trying a different tack: publishing and broadcasting stories of Friday's "anti-Chinese" riots in Lhasa and the aftermath - with no mention of Tibetan casualties or the army being deployed. According to news reports, employees at the state television service CCTV's English service were instructed to keep broadcasting footage of burned-out shops and Chinese wounded in attacks. No peaceful demonstrators were shown.

Authorities are also allowing anti-Tibetan messages to get through, including websites that call for the murder of Tibetan "separatists", says RSF.

CPJ told news reporters that China's restrictions on reporting the Tibet protests was "a disturbing preview of the kind of blanket censorship journalists might face in August."

In an ominous turn for the Chinese authorities, who were hoping to have a smooth run-up to the Olympic Games, the street protests have broadened to outside of China's borders.

According to Human Rights Watch, there have been daily pro-Tibet protests around the world since last Monday. Fights broke out in front of China's embassy in Paris during a demonstration against Beijing's crackdown on protesters. French riot police used tear gas to disperse around 500 pro-Tibetan supporters.

Protests were also held in India, where mostly Tibetans marched through the streets in and around Dharamsala. Human Rights Watch reports that Indian police detained at least 100 exiled Tibetans who were trying to march from Dharamsala to Tibet on 10 March and slapped a restraining order barring protesters from leaving the district.

At least 12 monks were injured in Nepal on Friday when police broke up a march of 1,000 protesters in Kathmandu.

"The harsh crackdown on similar protests in democratic India and Nepal? raises concerns about whether China is pressuring those countries to silence Tibetans," Human Rights Watch says.

RSF is calling on heads of state to boycott the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games to voice their disapproval with Beijing's policies.

The latest unrest in Tibet began as monks and activists staged protests in Lhasa and other regions on 10 March, the anniversary of the 1959 uprising which China suppressed with force and which led the Dalai Lama to flee to exile in India. Hundreds of monks from one monastery near Lhasa demanded the release of other monks jailed last year. Additional monks and ordinary Tibetans joined in, demanding independence and waving the Tibetan flag. Arrests ensued, leading to more protests.

Visit these links:
- CPJ: http://tinyurl.com/3aexxk
- Freedom House: http://tinyurl.com/yrlkvb
- HKJA: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/91727/
- Human Rights Watch: http://tinyurl.com/34bd79
- IFJ: http://www.ifj.org/default.asp?Index=5965&Language=EN
- PEN: http://www.pencanada.ca/media/Tibet_3-17-08.pdf
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=26248
- Free Tibet Campaign, with links to international news reports: http://www.freetibet.org/
(Photo of the Dalai Lama addressing supporters, courtesy of the "Guardian")

(18 March 2008)

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