Monday, March 24, 2008

Protesting the Press on the Tibet Riots

China's state news agency aimed to temper harsh foreign news coverage of Tibet with one of its strikingly childish journalistic rebuttals today. But Xinhua's response, though immature, raises a serious question: With so little known about the events in Tibet, have the foreign media been totally fair?

China has been under fire recently for its "crackdown" on the protests in Tibet and riots in other regions where there are significant Tibetan populations. From a variety of jumbled news reports, I've gathered that hundreds have been killed in the rioting, but sources can't agree on the death toll.

AFP reported today that the Tibetan prime minister-in-exile in Dharamsala, India, is saying 130 have been confirmed dead. Xinhua, China's official news agency, says 18 "innocent" Chinese were killed by protesters and has confirmed that more have died in neighboring Gansu province, but it hasn't acknowledged the Tibetan government's official count as accurate. No matter the disputes, news agencies have been singing one chorus in unison throughout the entire ordeal: any toll is impossible to independently verify.

That sentence seems to sum up the press's knowledge of the entire incident. The questions of Who killed whom? What provoked such vehement protests? And is this really a "crackdown" or just stern enforcement of the law? are largely going unanswered, even as the story remains a top fixture in every major newspaper.

The uncertainty is partly because China has restricted access to the province. All foreign reporters have been banned from visiting Tibet in another one of China's futile attempts to keep the press silent as the Olympics approach. The Chinese government hasn't caught onto the fact that most reporters in today's era of 24-hour news never stop writing. They keep on, but in doing so resort to speculation and sensationalism rather than hard facts.

In that sense, the government is partly to blame if indeed there is misinformation being circulated about Tibet. But I have to say that I agree with the government that Western media reports do seem to have a been a little biased thus far.

Even in their own reports, many media outlets have noted that Tibetans seem to have initiated the March 14 violence and stoked it with repeated attacks on Han Chinese cars, places of business and even people. Granted, these people were reacting to almost 60 years of oppression as a vassal of the Chinese, and it's understandable that they have some anger to release.

But sending in troops to quell an uprising seems to be understandable if protests turn violent, as long as those troops don't use excessive force. I seem to remember a certain Democratic convention in 1972 where police got a little nightstick practice on rioters that crossed the line. The first amendment guarantees the right to "peaceably" assemble, not to throw rocks and set things on fire. As the heroes of our Revolutionary War were, you have to be ready to endure the consequences if you undertake acts of violent rebellion.

There have been incidents of beatings and rumors of shots fired into crowds, but the real stories are still elusive, and firsthand reports are scarce. The journalist's job, even here in the land of the free, is not to overtly side with the oppressed group and condemn the government before the facts are in the open. It's to get the facts. China has plenty of human rights abuses to criticize without having to make things up.

And that's what bothers me about the whole situation. For one, we like to carry the banner of freedom in Tibet, but we turn a blind eye to other regions of the world where people are being oppressed more harshly. Tibet has become a trendy cause, the convenient human rights flag to wave. I think a top Chinese official was partly right when he said smugly today that some people treat the Dalai Lama as if he's a god.

It's not that I think Tibetan rights are less important than those of other groups; it's just that I don't think they're more important. Where are the calls for peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Where is the outrage over continued oppression in Myanmar?

And within China, what about the people in the Northwest, the Uighurs, who have also seen their homeland overrun with Chinese immigrants? What about the Christians and Falun Gong practitioners and Buddhists that continue to experience discrimination daily?

And don't forget, regardless of Tibet's unique cultural brand, the Chinese see the Himalayan region as a part of their motherland. Call them crazy, but as Peter Hessler wrote in this article in 1999, the issue is not settled in their eyes, and they have some convenient historical methodology to justify their beliefs. They're developing their wild west, and it seems to me that the Tibetans and Uighurs (among others) are to China what the Native Americans were to the white man. As far as I can recall from history classes, we didn't wave the same banner of freedom for native peoples during those days.

All that is to say that we'd do well to look at the other side of our calls for freedom. We don't want to lose our ideals, but we don't want to sacrifice one (truth) for the sake of another.

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