Credibility gap

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 April, 2008, 12:00am

It is ironic that China, a country that does not allow the operation of a free press, should accuse the western media of bias in its coverage of the dramatic events in Tibet , including the use of double standards. 'Senior editors condemn western media,' a headline in the state-controlled China Daily newspaper screamed on Saturday. The headline appeared over an article distributed by the official Xinhua News Agency.

The article quoted Meng Yang, identified as a senior editor of the authoritative People's Daily as saying: 'The western media have made their claim that they seek truth in stories, but what they do betrays what they say. Their stories can only incur discredit on their reputation.'

Actually, the lesson China should learn from the Tibet affair is that it is better to trust the free media to present a fair picture rather than try to use government-controlled mouthpieces to convince the outside world that right is on its side. The free press, despite its many and frequent flaws, has far greater credibility.

When the riots broke out on March 14, only one accredited western journalist - James Miles, of The Economist - happened to be in Tibet. His impartial reporting of the riots, including Tibetans burning shops and throwing stones at Han Chinese, earned praise by Chinese state television. Nonetheless, even he was told to leave Tibet. Beijing did not trust anyone whom it did not control to tell the story the way it wanted it to be told. And what was that story? It was that the Dalai Lama and his followers were responsible for the riots because they wanted to split Tibet from China and to use the Olympics to embarrass China.

In fact, such charges were made by Chinese officials almost immediately after the riots broke out. They were repeated by no less a figure than Premier Wen Jiabao , who said on March 18 at a press conference that 'we also have plenty of evidence proving that this incident was organised, premeditated, masterminded and incited by the Dalai clique.'

No evidence was produced in support of this claim. And the People's Daily and other official media bodies present did not press him to produce the evidence.

Now, look at how the state-controlled media resorts to double standards. On March 27, Chinese officials were escorting members of a press delegation visiting Tibet and, at the Jokhang Temple, the tour was suddenly disrupted as about 30 young monks screamed: 'Tibet is not free! Tibet is not free!' and declared that Chinese charges that the Dalai Lama was responsible for the violence in Tibet were false.

The China Daily, reporting on the incident, left out the fact that the monks had called for freedom in Tibet. Instead, it focused on their claim that the Dalai Lama had not been involved. Then, it added that the monks 'did not provide any proof to back up their claims'.

What kind of proof, one wonders, can be produced to prove a negative - that the Dalai Lama had not been involved in organising and planning the violence?

The official media did not ask Chinese officials to back up their charges by producing evidence - something which should be possible. Instead, they asked the monks to produce evidence to support their denials - something that cannot be done.

Is it any wonder that the outside world prefers to read the free press, despite its admitted shortcomings, rather than the controlled press?

After the Cultural Revolution ended, the late Chinese leader Hu Yaobang apologised in Lhasa for 30 years of misrule and ordered most Chinese officials there to be replaced by Tibetans.

Now, another 30 years have gone by and the recent violence makes it clear that China's policy on Tibet is still not working.

It is time for Beijing to take the Dalai Lama at his word - that he does not want an independent Tibet - and work with him. On Sunday, while in Laos, Mr Wen for the first time called on the Dalai Lama to use his influence to end the violence in Tibet. That is a good first step. Beijing should engage with the Dalai Lama to solve this problem, rather than regard him as the enemy who instigated the violence.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator