Free media access will clear doubts over Tibet

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 March, 2008, 12:00am


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The first orchestrated trip for the foreign media to Lhasa backfired embarrassingly for mainland officials last week when a group of Tibetan monks suddenly interrupted the carefully controlled tour to air their grievances. Their emotional protest made headlines around the world and undermined Beijing's efforts to use the media trip to get across its version of events. The incident also highlighted the futility of the authorities' misguided efforts to control the flow of information about the violence in Tibet , which erupted two weeks ago.

The surprise protest might have pushed Beijing to further clam up. But, under increasing international pressure, it has now allowed a group of diplomats from major western countries and Japan to tour Lhasa - albeit under tight control. This is a welcome move. But to dispel suspicions of a cover-up, it needs to open up further, and allow media and diplomatic groups greater access, not only to Lhasa but also other areas affected by the recent protests and riots.

When violence first broke out in Tibet, some Hong Kong journalists were able to get into Lhasa and file live reports from the city. Unfortunately, the authorities resorted to their traditional methods of censorship and blackout. The journalists were quickly expelled, and only official footage showing rioters engaged in acts of looting, beating and arson was released by state media.

Beijing frequently takes the view that the western media paint China in a negative and unfair light. In this instance, there have been some factual inaccuracies in some of the overseas reporting on Tibet. But while some reports have, by default, shown sympathy with the Dalai Lama, not all have accepted his version of events uncritically. They have also made efforts to talk to ordinary Chinese people, who have corroborated the official version of what happened.

Yet if journalists are denied the freedom to gather information and report the events as they see them, they are more likely to suspect the worst. Beijing's restrictions on the media only serve to create a perception that it might have something to hide. Had journalists from Hong Kong and the international media been allowed free access to Tibet instead of being booted out, Beijing's version might have found a more sympathetic hearing and the Dalai Lama's version might have been subjected to closer media scrutiny.

When China won the right to stage the Olympics, Beijing promised that the Games would help further open up the country and improve its human right records. This must include expanding the freedom of the press. Moreover, it has specifically guaranteed foreign media unobstructed access in the lead-up to, and during, the Games. Such promises are now in danger of proving hollow.

Between now and the Olympics in August, those who have an axe to grind with China can be expected to exploit every opportunity to publicise their causes. Mainland authorities at all levels need to learn that transparency is the best defence against any accusations. If protests and demonstrations point to genuine problems, officials should own up to the shortcomings and tackle the grievances head-on rather than frustrate journalists' attempts to get to the truth. Only then will they gain credibility among members of the western press, who are trained to harbour a healthy dose of scepticism.

The riots have put China in the spotlight ahead of the Olympics. Beijing needs to demonstrate it has the courage to fulfil its pledge to respect press freedom - both for its own good, and for the country's future as a more open and informed society.