Restrictions on Information Access in Tibetan Areas Increase

March 12, 2009

Internet and cell phone text messaging services in Tibetan areas of western China reportedly have been disrupted, according to a March 10, 2009, Associated Press (AP) article and a February 22, 2009, Reuters article.

Internet and cell phone text messaging services in Tibetan areas of western China reportedly have been disrupted, according to a March 10, 2009, Associated Press (AP) article and a February 22, 2009, Reuters article. While access to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) itself has remained severely restricted, foreign journalists recently reported greater harassment in Tibetan areas in neighboring provinces outside the TAR, according to a March 9 statement of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC), an association of Beijing-based journalists. The communications disruptions and harassment of foreign journalists coincide with a series of dates that many Tibetans consider to have a high level of cultural and political sensitivity, and have made it difficult to access and verify information about reported increases in security measures implemented by Chinese officials, and the impact of such measures on Tibetans and other residents in those areas.

AP reported that Internet and cell phone text messaging services in the region were "spotty" and that residents of Lhasa, the capital of the TAR, had received a text message from cell phone service provider China Mobile warning of disruptions to phone calls and text messages between March 10 to May 1 "due to networks improvements." A China Mobile customer service representative reportedly confirmed the message's existence to AP. The Reuters article reported that unnamed residents across the region said they were not able to send or receive text messages or to access the Internet., an official state news agency, said that cell phones were operating normally in Lhasa and cited reports from cell phone stores in Lhasa that there had been no noticeable rise in complaints about cell phone users not being able to dial out or receive text messages, according to a March 10 article

The popular Web site reportedly has been shut down since the afternoon of March 5. According to a March 5 statement on the Web site and a March 7 Reuters article, the Web site closed for repairs on March 5 and would be inoperable for about a week. The site featured news from China's state-controlled media as well as cultural and Buddhist content, according to the Reuters article.

FCCC's March 9 statement urged the Chinese government to "halt a wave of detentions of journalists and open Tibetan areas for news coverage." The association reported that in the previous week officials detained, turned back, and confiscated the tapes of, reporters from at least six media organizations attempting to visit Tibetan areas in the provinces of Gansu, Sichuan, and Qinghai. Under foreign reporting regulations issued in October 2008, foreign reporters are generally allowed to report without restrictions, although officials made clear at the time that foreign reporters would still require special permits to travel to the TAR. FCCC reported that in the recent instances officials gave no legal basis for the restrictions outside the TAR. AP reported on February 12 that local officials have been barring foreigners not only from the TAR, but from other parts of western China with large Tibetan populations. Furthermore, on March 11 AP reported that the travel ban had been extended to Jiuzhaigou valley in Sichuan province. Jampa Phuntsog (Xiangba Pingcuo), Chairman of the TAR government, recently described the conditions foreign reporters should meet in order to be allowed into the TAR, saying that the TAR's "door is always open" to foreign journalists "as long as the reporters conduct their coverage in a just and objective way that is conducive to Tibet's social and economic development," according to a March 6 Xinhua report.

The FCCC statement also said that the journalists reported official intimidation of their Chinese co-workers, with one suggesting that officials were targeting Chinese counterparts who could not benefit from any protection the new regulations might afford.

The series of sensitive dates in 2009 includes the Tibetan New Year (Losar) on February 25, the fiftieth anniversary of March 10, 1959, the date when tens of thousands of Tibetans in Lhasa gathered outside the Dalai Lama's Norbulingka residence because they feared a People's Liberation Army plot to harm him, and the first observance of "Serfs Emancipation Day" on March 28, a government-established holiday marking the end of the Dalai Lama's government. Officials in Lhasa, the capital of the TAR, have launched a "strike hard" anti-crime campaign involving stepped up checks on residents. Foreign media accounts of the period note an increase in police and military presence in Tibetan areas, but that verifying the situation is difficult. (See, e.g., March 10 AP article). Similar communications disruptions and harassment of foreign journalists were evident following a series of protests in Tibetan areas that began on March 10, 2008, in Lhasa and spread to the Tibetan areas of Sichuan, Gansu, and Qinghai provinces. (For CECC analysis of these protests, click here.)

For more information on the Chinese government's attempts to control media coverage and access to information about the Tibetan protests in 2008, see Section II - Freedom of Expression, in the Congressional-Executive Commission on China 2008 Annual Report.