Controversy has flared during the prelude to the 2008 Beijing Olympic games as free press advocacy groups have criticized China’s human rights record on media and free speech restrictions. Meanwhile many Chinese have spoken out against international media coverage they have called biased and unfair.
Much of the focus has been on the situation following violence in Tibet and resulting restrictions on access for foreign journalists there and in neighboring provinces.
The Associated Press (AP) reported on March 15, 2008 that protests initiated by Buddhist monks in Tibet’s capitol, Lhasa, grew violent the week of March 10 – 14. According to the AP, a March 10 protest on the anniversary of the 1959 exile of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, led to arrests after protesters unfurled a Tibetan national flag, which is banned, and demanded independence.
The AP reported that on March 14, police had moved in to stop another group of protesting monks when larger crowds gathered. Protesters and police clashed, and cars and shops were attacked and burned. Much of the violence targeted migrant Han Chinese who have populated the Tibet region as the Chinese government has subsidized development there. The AP said the Chinese government has reported that 22 deaths resulted from the March 14 rioting, but Tibetan exiles have reported the death toll as closer to 140. The AP reported on March 17 that sympathy demonstrations sprang up in Tibetan communities in the neighboring provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu, drawing a mobilization of security forces across a broad expanse of western China.
Reports also vary on how many have been imprisoned and await trial following the riots. According to The New York Times, the Chinese government has said fewer than 100 are imprisoned, while a Tibetan human rights group has put the number of detained Tibetans at more than 5,000. Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported April 29 that a court in Lhasa sentenced 30 people to prison in connection with the riots. The sentences ranged from three years to life.
The AP said March 17 that because of restrictions on access for foreign media, it has been difficult to independently verify casualties, the scale of protests, and the government response. The AP also reported March 17 that Hong Kong broadcaster TVB said public security officers kicked out reporters from three Hong Kong television stations in Lhasa: Cable TV, TVB, and ATV. TVB said it was forced to delete its footage of the March 14 violence.
According to the AP’s March 17 report, government officials expelled foreign reporters from Tibetan areas in Qinghai and Gansu provinces, and foreign journalists were turned away from of a candlelight vigil for Tibet held at an outdoor plaza in Beijing by students from Central Nationalities University, an elite school for ethnic minorities.
The New York-based nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said March 17 that the expulsions and restrictions contravene media regulations enacted in January 2007 to allow greater freedom for foreign journalists in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games. The temporary regulations, in effect Jan. 1, 2007 through Oct. 17, 2008, promise foreign reporters unrestricted travel in China and uncensored Internet access, and say that accredited foreign journalists may interview any consenting Chinese organization or citizen. Human rights groups like CPJ, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders or RSF) have criticized the Chinese Government for not upholding the new regulations. (See “China Failing to Deliver on Pre-Olympics Press Freedom Promises According to NGOs’ Reports” in the Fall 2007 issue of the Silha Bulletin.)
On March 27, USA Today reported that one of its reporters was among a group of about 20 international journalists allowed on a two-day government-led tour of Lhasa intended to show that the area had calmed. The report said that officials from China’s Foreign Ministry discouraged the group of journalists from deviating from the itinerary set by the government, saying that to do so would be dangerous.
USA Today and the AP reported that during a visit to Jokhang Temple on the second day of the visit, at least 30 monks interrupted an official briefing, shouting, “do not believe them” and “Tibet is not free.” Government handlers shouted for the journalists to leave and tried to pull them away during the outburst, according to the AP and USA Today.
The AP reported April 10 that a statement from six United Nations (U.N.)-appointed investigators called on the Chinese government to lift restrictions it had imposed on domestic media that limited people’s access to information about the violence in Tibet. The U.N. experts said they received anecdotal reports that Internet controls in China have increased recently, with blocking of Tibet reports on foreign news sites and censoring of Tibet-related discussions on domestic chat sites.
Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported March 16 that access to the video-sharing Web site YouTube was denied in China after footage of the Tibetan protests appeared there. According to AFP, footage of the riots on broadcast television was also limited in China, with state-run media showing a short clip of Tibetan rioters destroying Chinese shops in Lhasa, but no footage of the police or military response. The AFP reported that the domestic broadcast of CNN was regularly blacked out whenever a story about the Tibet unrest ran.
The New York Times reported April 18 that Chinese authorities detained Jamyang Kyi, a prominent Tibetan television broadcaster who is also a popular singer. According to the report, Kyi, an announcer at the state-run television station in Xining, Qinghai, a western province bordering Tibet, was escorted from her office by plainclothes police officers on April 1, colleagues and friends told the Times. The Times said there has been no official confirmation of the detention.
According to the Times, along with being a broadcaster and singer, Kyi is a respected intellectual and blogger who has written about women’s rights and the trafficking of girls.
Torch Relay Sparks Protests, Nationalism
Meanwhile, the around-the-world relay of the Olympic torch has proven to be another flashpoint for controversy, as protestors at many of the torch’s stops have sought to use the relay to draw attention to human rights issues.
In one incident, three protesters from RSF found their way around heavy security at the Athens, Greece lighting ceremony on March 24, with one person managing to briefly unfurl a banner behind Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee head Liu Qi as he made a speech. According to the AP, RSF identified the three protesters as Robert Menard, the group’s general secretary, Jean-Francois Juliard and Vincent Brossel. CNN reported that Juliard said the men used their press cards to get access to the ceremony.
A single protester and the banner were briefly seen on the television coverage of the event. The banner depicted the Olympic rings made with handcuffs. A story and video of the incident is available via the BBC Web site at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7310654.stm.
According to Toronto’s Globe and Mail, coverage of the chaotic torch relay protests in Paris on April 7 was absent from Chinese state television, which instead showed images of Paris tourist sites. According to The Globe and Mail, state broadcasters made only brief mentions of the protests and did not show any pictures of them.
The Globe and Mail reported that foreign broadcasters like CNN and the BBC were sporadically blacked out in Beijing when the broadcasters showed scenes of the Paris protests.
The torch relay has sparked feelings of nationalism among large expatriate Chinese communities, particularly in France, Australia and San Francisco, according to the Los Angeles Times, which reported April 26 that the wave of Olympic pride has led many Chinese to speak out against Western media which they have said has been biased against China in its coverage of the Tibet protests.
According to The New York Times on April 16, specific criticisms have mostly focused on mislabeled photo captions that have inaccurately identified a police crackdown against Tibetan protesters in Nepal as having instead occurred in China. Another photo which drew criticism was posted on the CNN Web site and purported to show demonstrators running from military vehicles in Lhasa. An uncropped version of the photo shows other demonstrators hurling objects at the vehicles. Many of the photos, videos and commentary (some in English) are available at the Web site http://www.anti-cnn.com/.
The Foreign Correspondents Club of China said in an April 30 statement that at least 10 foreign correspondents in China “have received anonymous death threats during a campaign, on the Web and in state-run media, against alleged bias in Western media coverage of the Tibetan unrest and its aftermath.” The club’s Web site is at http://www.fccchina.org/.
The Los Angeles Times, AP, and Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that protestors demonstrated outside CNN offices in Hollywood, Calif. on April 19 and at the network’s world headquarters in Atlanta on April 19 and 26, calling for the firing of commentator Jack Cafferty, a regular commentator on CNN’s “The Situation Room,” for comments he made on April 9 during an exchange with the host, Wolf Blitzer.
In comparing America’s relationship with China today versus several decades ago, Cafferty said, “We are … running hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of trade deficits with [the Chinese], as we continue to import their junk with the lead paint on them and the poisoned pet food and export, you know, jobs to places where you can pay workers a dollar a month to turn out the stuff that we’re buying from Wal-Mart. So I think our relationship with China has certainly changed,” he continued. “I think they’re basically the same bunch of goons and thugs they’ve been for the last 50 years.”
An April 19 AP story said police estimated the peaceful Hollywood protest included 2,000 to 5,000 people. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said the April 26 Atlanta protest included “hundreds of people” and an airplane circling overhead with a banner that said “Go Olympics! CNN Stop Bashing Chinese!!!”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry blasted CNN for the comments, and rejected the network’s initial response to the remarks, according to The Washington Post on April 18.
CNN released a statement April 15 that said “Jack [Cafferty] was offering his strongly held opinion of the Chinese government, not the Chinese people. CNN would like to clarify that it was not Mr. Cafferty’s, nor CNN’s, intent to cause offense to the Chinese people, and would apologize to anyone who has interpreted the comments in this way.” Cafferty himself also clarified that the comments were directed at China’s government and not its people, The Washington Post reported.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said CNN and Cafferty’s statements did not go far enough. “Their statement not only did not make a sincere apology, but also took aim at the Chinese government, attempting to sow dissension between the Chinese government and the people,” Jiang said on April 17, the Post reported. “We cannot accept it.”
The Washington Post reported that Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Jianchao met with CNN Beijing Bureau Chief Jaime FlorCruz on April 16 in Beijing, but both CNN and the Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the meeting.
According to an April 23 report from Xinhua, the Journalism and Communications Committee of the Chinese Association of Higher Education suggested that CNN and other Western news media should review the canons of professional journalism taught to Chinese journalism students, such as the “Journalist’s Creed,” written by Missouri School of Journalism founder Walter Williams.
According to Xinhua, the committee said in a statement, “As teachers engaged in journalistic education in China, we have been striving to call for our students to abide by professional ethics of journalism and respect for civilization of all human beings. … But we have noticed distorted reports and vicious offence [sic] on China delivered by some mainstream Western media at a time when China is going to hold the Beijing Olympic Games.”
Reuters reported April 23 that, according to Hong Kong newspaper Wen Wei Po, a group of Chinese lawyers had filed a lawsuit against CNN in a Beijing court for violating “the dignity and reputation of the Chinese people.” Reuters said the court had yet to accept the case.
– Patrick File
Silha Fellow and Bulletin Editor