V. The Closure of Tibet

When the Tibet unrest happened, [the Chinese government] lost its nerve and went back to its traditional default position with regards to the foreign media, which is: “Don’t let anyone see anything.”94

—Beijing-based foreign correspondent, Beijing, March 29, 2008.

Media freedom also continues to be restricted geographically. The situation in Tibet today illustrates the range of controls officials can apply when they perceive a threat.   The picture is one of deliberate, orchestrated closure of Tibetan areas, with journalists scrambling to avoid obstacles at every turn. Their efforts are ultimately frustrated by official persistence in keeping them away from the “sensitive” areas.

Access for foreigners, and particularly foreign journalists, to Tibet has been closely circumscribed since the Chinese People’s Liberation Army entered central Tibet95 in 1950.96 Tibetans refer to the events of 1950 as an “invasion,” while the Chinese government refers to it as the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet.97

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has long required foreign correspondents who want to do reporting trips to Tibet to apply for permission, a process which journalists describe as lengthy and frustrating.98 The temporary regulations contain no geographical restrictions,99 but were superseded in February 2007 when MOFA stated that correspondents’ access to Tibet still requires specific MOFA permission due to “restraints in natural conditions and reception capabilities” across Tibet.100 

Several foreign journalists who tried to visit Tibet in 2007 were denied access at entry points by government officials and security forces and have been intimidated by MOFA officials. McClatchy Newspapers’ China correspondent Tim Johnson, who made an unsanctioned trip to Tibet in May 2007, said that a MOFA official delivered a verbal reprimand, accusing him of false reporting “unacceptable” to the Chinese government.101 Even foreign journalists with official permission to report in Tibet were blocked at times by local officials and correspondents on MOFA-organized trips, faced micro-managed schedules which interfered with independent reporting, and the constant presence of official guides or minders who intimidated potential local sources. 

In March 2008, access to Tibet and Tibetan communities in neighboring provinces for foreign correspondents was shut off altogether, with the exception of five government-organized and controlled tours.

The March 2008 Protests in Tibetan Areas

On March 10, 2008, hundreds of monks from Drepung monastery, five miles west of the Tibetan capital Lhasa, began peaceful protests calling for an end to religious restrictions and the release of imprisoned monks as part of commemorations for “Tibetan Uprising Day,” the anniversary of the Tibetan rebellion against Chinese rule of Tibet in 1959.102 While marching toward the Drepung, protesters were stopped by large numbers of Chinese police, and media reports estimate that around 50 monks were detained.103 The monks held a sit-down protest for some 12 hours before returning to their monastery. On March 11 at around 2:30 a.m., the sound of gunfire was heard emanating from the area of the monastery.104

Over the course of that week, similar protests erupted at Sera and Ganden monasteries, and Lhasa was rocked by unprecedented protests, including attacks by Tibetans on ethnic Han and their property. Chinese security forces, notably absent as the rioting got underway, eventually responded by beating protesters, firing live ammunition, and cutting phone lines into monasteries.105 There have been reports that some protesters were shot.106 The Chinese government claims that 23 people were killed in the riots, while the Tibetan government-in-exile claims 203 Tibetans have been killed in subsequent government crackdown.107 The Chinese government quickly sealed Tibet and Tibetan communities in neighboring provinces with thousands of troops and police,108 resulting in the surrender or arrest of more than 3,000 people in the first month following the unrest.109 Protests by Tibetans swiftly spread in the following days to areas of the neighboring southwestern provinces of Sichuan, Gansu, Qinghai, and Yunnan,110 which are home to more than half of all ethnic Tibetans. According to one observer, “Chinese internal reports are said to have estimated that some 30,000 Tibetans took part.”111

Expulsion of Journalists from Lhasa

The Chinese government’s response to foreign media in the aftermath of the riots in Lhasa and in neighboring provinces was swift and uncompromising: journalists in Lhasa came under strong official pressure to leave or were forcibly ejected. Chinese government officials and security forces forced the few other foreign journalists who had managed to arrive in the aftermath of the violence out of the region by March 18.  The temporary regulations were of no help to journalists here.

A group of Hong Kong text and television journalists were confined to their Lhasa hotel by police on the evening of March 15. A government official told the journalists that their reporting on the protests was “out of line” and ordered them to leave Lhasa the next day.112 The journalists were dispatched to the airport in a special minibus and accompanied by two Tibetan government officials “to ensure we all got on the flight.”113

German correspondents George Blum and Kristin Kupfer left by train from Lhasa to Xining in Qinghai province on March 18. Their departure was prompted by threats from immigration officials that the two journalists’ official press accreditation to China would be withdrawn if they didn’t leave the city.114 

James Miles, a China correspondent for The Economist, happened to be on an officially-sanctioned visit to Lhasa during the protests, and provided eyewitness accounts to western media of the ransacking and burning of Chinese owned shops and brutality by Tibetan rioters against Han Chinese migrants in the city.115 He was permitted to stay in Lhasa until the scheduled conclusion of his official tour on March 19, 2008.116 Miles believes he was allowed to complete his Tibet trip because MOFA personnel liked his reporting on Tibetan violence against Han Chinese and they did not want the negative publicity of forcing out a correspondent with official permission to be in Lhasa.117 

Foreign journalists who flew into Lhasa on March 15 were put back on flights to Chengdu in Sichuan province, the regional air hub for flights to Tibet.118

Obstacles for Journalists Trying to Reach Tibetan Areas

The temporary regulations were equally useless to correspondents trying to reach Tibetan communities in the neighboring provinces of Gansu, Sichuan, Qinghai and Yunnan provinces, where no additional geographical constraints should apply.  Although there were no official announcements of extraordinary legal circumstances which might warrant an obstruction, such as a declaration of martial law, the Chinese government also moved quickly to block foreign correspondents from accessing Tibetan communities in these provinces. 

The Chinese government offered vague justifications for sealing off Tibetan areas from foreign journalists. On March 20, MOFA defended its prohibition as legally-justified “special measures in line with the law” and asked that journalists understand and cooperate with the new restrictions on their freedom to report.119

The Regulations allow free reporting by foreign journalists in China, however, there is no absolute freedom anywhere in the world. Besides, Article One of the Regulations stipulates that these regulations are formulated to facilitated reporting activities by foreign journalists in China in accordance with the laws of the People’s Republic of China. We hope foreign journalists abide by Chinese laws and relevant regulations.120

The foreign ministry has consistently declined, however, to specify the precise legal basis for the prohibition on correspondents’ access to Tibet and neighboring provinces, and the laws which allow the government to supersede the authority of the temporary regulations. The Chinese government has subsequently altered its justification for the ban on foreign media access to those areas by citing unspecified concerns about journalists’ “safety,”121 noting “security issues and other issues.”122 Many foreign journalists remain puzzled by such statements, given that most of the threats they have encountered have come from government officials themselves.

Foreign correspondents who attempted to get from their Beijing or Shanghai bases to cover one of China’s most serious outbreaks of civil strife since the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989 were barred from flights, stopped at roadblocks (where their drivers were intimidated by local security authorities), and even detained. Within days, a significant portion of western China was sealed off from the eyes of foreign journalists. 

The FCCC, which in 2007 recorded 180 separate incidents of reporting interference including detention, intimidation, and harassment across China, documented more than 50 such cases in western China in the two-week period following March 14.123 The challenges facing foreign journalists in trying to report the story were aptly summarized by veteran China correspondent Jonathan Watts of the U.K. newspaper The Guardian.

Trouble has been breaking out hundreds of miles apart in an area roughly the size of Western Europe. Chasing the incidents is like racing from London to Zurich to Lisbon, while trying to dodge the police and avoid putting sources in danger at the same time. In the past seven days, we have taken seven flights, been driven for 30 hours and covered a distance roughly equivalent to 10 times the length of Britain. Security restrictions haven’t helped. I have twice woken-up before dawn to avoid checkpoints on six-to-eight hour journeys that ultimately ended in failure, when the police stopped me, found I was a journalist and sent me back.124

With direct travel to Lhasa and the rest of Tibet prohibited, foreign correspondents quickly booked flights to transportation hubs in southwestern China, including Chengdu, Gansu province’s Lanzhou and Yunnan province’s Kunming, in the hope of arranging land transportation to areas of Tibetan protests. But some foreign journalists found that the authorities were unwilling even to permit them to board the flights. 

Public Security Bureau officers refused to allow a Beijing-based foreign correspondent to board a flight on March 19 from Kunming to Lhasa for “security reasons.”  He was blocked by security officials again the same day when he tried to get on a flight from Kunming to Zhongdian, which was of interest for its large ethnic Tibetan population and its proximity to parts of Sichuan province where there had been protests. “When I tried to go to Zhongdian, police with submachine guns and flak jackets [at the boarding gate] said I couldn’t go for ‘safety reasons’ and they were also turning back [foreign] tourists from boarding.”125

A Shanghai-based foreign correspondent who likewise attempted to fly to Zhongdian from Yunnan on March 18 was blocked by police who demonstrated a surprising level of knowledge of his movements toward Zhongdian. The correspondent said that they had tracked him through analysis of airline data.126

At the airport the police were waiting for me at the [airline] check-in counter, 10 uniformed police, some with machine guns. They greeted me with “You must be [the correspondent’s name]” and when they looked at my ticket I overheard one of them say “Oh yes, he’s just recently been to Hong Kong,”…so they obviously got my name from the airline passenger manifest. We had a routine argument…but I had no luck boarding the flight.127

Several correspondents also said that their drivers—essential for reaching more remote areas of these provinces—were often the first target for police intimidation or subterfuge.

A three-person foreign television news crew which had successfully traveled from Xining, Qinghai province, in the early hours of March 16 to the Tibetan community of Gonghe were detained that same afternoon by two car-loads of uniformed local Public Security Bureau (PSB) officers. The PSB insisted that the journalists needed to accompany the police to the local station “to check our credentials.”128 The police checked the journalists’ press cards and passports, but directed most of their attention toward the journalists’ driver. “[The request to check our credentials] was a ploy. They gave our driver a good talking-to, and he said that [the police] made him aware of the fact that they didn’t want him to go anywhere [potentially sensitive].”129 This intimidation, along with being tailed by an unmarked police car all day, sabotaged the journalists’ efforts to report.130 

A Shanghai-based correspondent who flew to Lanzhou on March 15 en route to report on Tibetan unrest in other parts of Gansu province believed that some of the city’s taxi drivers had been replaced by plainclothes police, or had been temporarily paid to double as police informers. The taxi driver who picked up the correspondent from the Lanzhou airport appeared to intentionally surrender the journalist to police who were recording the entry of foreign correspondents into the city.

The cab driver who picked me up [at the airport] said right away “Oh, many journalists are coming to Lanzhou today,” but I hadn’t even told him that I was a journalist. Then the cab driver said “I think we’re being followed, I should call the police!” Actually behind us was another taxi with two other foreign journalists. Within a few minutes, plainclothes police showed up and looked at our passports.131

The plainclothes police did not detain the journalists, but merely documented their passport details as part of what appeared to be an official surveillance program of correspondents in Lanzhou.132

Police in these provinces also openly pressured some taxi drivers to limit the destinations to which they would take foreign correspondents. A Beijing-based foreign correspondent who successfully traveled overland from Lijang to Zhongdian in Yunnan province discovered that police who had waved him through a checkpoint into Zhongdian had instructed the driver to ignore the correspondent’s destination requests, and instead drop him off at the local headquarters of the Public Security Bureau.133 When the driver revealed the plan to the foreign journalist, after he had complained that the driver wasn’t stopping at a local hotel as requested, the correspondent “threw him the fare and took off” in the middle of an intersection.134

Beijing-based correspondent Richard Spencer of The Telegraph was also subjected to police efforts to control his movements in Gansu province on March 17. Spencer had ended up in Gansu’s Hezuo city that day after three days of repeated incidents of harassment, detention, and intimidation, including being turned back at a police roadblock on March 15 en route to Xiahe from Lanzhou. Spencer was also detained and interrogated by “very aggressive” submachine-gun toting police outside the town of Luqu in Gansu on March 16, and forcibly transferred from his rented vehicle to a police minivan that same day and transported to Hezuo, Gansu province, against his will. That interference occurred while Spencer was attempting to cover reported Tibetan unrest in the province and in neighboring Sichuan.135 On March 17, an individual who Spencer identified as a plainclothes policeman repeatedly interfered with Spencer’s efforts to hail a taxi outside his hotel to take him to Lanzhou to board a flight back to Beijing. The plainclothes policeman insisted Spencer take a public bus to Lanzhou on the basis that the bus’s fixed route would prevent Spencer from attempting to independently slip back into neighboring Tibetan communities.136 Spencer was eventually allowed to get in a taxi, but the policeman ordered the taxi driver to personally contact the policeman by phone when Spencer had been dropped off at the Lanzhou airport.137 

Foreign correspondents reported that, beginning on March 15, government and security officials converted toll points on main roads running north out of Chengdu, Lanzhou, and Xining into roadblocks designed to block access by foreign travelers, particularly journalists. These were controlled by government officials, uniformed, and plainclothes police who scrutinized the passengers of incoming vehicles for foreign passengers. Local travelers were permitted to continue their journeys unimpeded.

A Beijing-based foreign television journalist trying to get to the town of Xiahe in Gansu, where there had reportedly been Tibetan protests, was forced to abandon the main roads leading to the town due to those roadblocks. “70 kilometers outside Lanzhou, all the toll points became roadblocks. We were told [by police at a roadblock] that Xiahe was ‘closed’ and our driver was told to take us back [to Lanzhou].”138 The journalist was eventually able to reach Xiahe “after many hours and many [road-related] acrobatics” and on his way back noted that the roadblocks were focused strictly on incoming vehicles and ignored cars leaving the area.139

Police at a roadblock from Lanzhou to Xiahe on March 15 told another Beijing-based foreign journalist that although they were familiar with the temporary regulations, they insisted that those rules “didn’t apply here.”140 The journalist then attempted to get assistance from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing. “We called MOFA and they said there was nothing they could do because under emergency circumstances, local authorities can prohibit foreigners from entry. This event really showed how powerless MOFA can be [in implementing the temporary regulations on media freedom].”141

A two-man foreign television crew was stopped on March 16 at a roadblock about an hour drive outside of Tongren, Qinghai province, where they had interviewed Tibetan monks at the local monastery. The uniformed police who stopped them politely but firmly dismissed the journalist’s insistence that the temporary regulations gave them the right to freely report in the area.142 The police required the journalists to get out of their own rented car and instead ride in a police car to a nearby police station. At the station, the journalists were denied the right to phone their bureau in Beijing.143 They were allowed to phone MOFA for assistance, but the police who had detained them refused to speak to the MOFA official.144 The journalists were questioned for hours and then released by the police who tried repeatedly, though unsuccessfully, to convince the journalists to show the police their Tongren interview footage.

Police and hotel staff in Litang, Sichuan province, assured a foreign journalist by phone that the town was open for foreigners to visit.145 Despite those advance assurances, the journalist was detained three times in a single day by uniformed police who said Litang was closed to foreigners due to unspecified “dangerous” conditions.146 Later that day, approximately ten minutes after the journalist reconfirmed with both a contact in Litang and the town’s government authorities that the town was indeed open to visitors, two uniformed police showed up at his hotel instructing him that no foreigners could travel west toward Litang. “That message was either really good timing, or they’d listened in on my [phone] conversation a few minutes earlier,” the journalist said.147

A foreign television journalist who had managed to evade roadblocks and discreetly enter the Gansu town of Xiahe on March 16 and 19 said that the security conditions imposed on the city made reporting impossible. “From Sunday to Wednesday they’d basically put a ring of steel around the city. Police and People’s Liberation Army troops with staves blocked roads into Xiahe proper…and they were letting monks and civilians into the city one-by-one only.”148

On the evening of March 15, Finnish Broadcasting Corporation (YLE) journalist Katri Makkonen went into a restaurant to evade the scrutiny of a group of people who had been following and videotaping her. Shortly after entering the restaurant, its owners closed its metal shutter door. Five minutes later, the shutter was opened from the outside and five plainclothes policemen entered, demanding to see her passport. One of the policemen carried in his hand the photocopied passport pictures of several journalists which he then attempted to use to identify Makkonen, suggesting that the police had used surveillance of mobile phone communications to discover what correspondents were in the area.149 The police briefly detained her to record her press card and passport details and then released her. The next day, police detained Makkonen en route to the Gansu town of Hezuo and demanded to view her film footage, threatening to “confiscate” anything they deemed “sensitive.”150 When Makkonen asked about the possible consequences of defying this order, one of the policemen replied, “You don’t want to know.”151

Seven correspondents interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that they faced demands by government officials and security forces to view and delete such footage after the crackdown on foreign journalists began on March 15, 2008. Four of those journalists lost valuable film footage as a result. A Shanghai-based foreign correspondent who took photographs of riot police outside of the Qinghai province town of Tongren on March 16 lost those shots within minutes when police detained the correspondent and deleted all the photos on the journalist’s camera.152 “They said photography there wasn’t allowed,” the correspondent said.153

By about March 20, many of the foreign correspondents attempting to cover the unrest in Tibetan areas had returned either to regional transportation hubs such as Chengdu or Lanzhou or to their bureaus in Beijing or Shanghai in the hope that reporting restrictions would soon be lifted. To date, however, those controls remain in place. 

Government-Orchestrated Tours for Journalists to Tibetan Areas

In response to growing international concern about the crackdown in Tibet and threats of a resulting boycott of the Olympics opening ceremonies,154 the Chinese government has granted select groups of foreign journalist’s temporary access on four highly-circumscribed trips to Lhasa and a fifth to Gansu province since the March 14-15, 2008 protests. A group of foreign diplomats were permitted to take a similar trip on March 29-30, though in early April, the Chinese government refused a request by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, to visit Tibet to investigate the violence there.155

On the two-day Lhasa trip, which began on March 27, 2008, foreign correspondents said that foreign ministry officials who accompanied them kept a close watch on their activities and repeatedly attempted to discourage, but not prevent, their efforts at independent reporting. However, the constant surveillance which those correspondents endured during the visit made it difficult to freely conduct interviews without fear of possible repercussions to local sources.

To be fair to our minders, when we really pushed them, they let us go do our thing, but they didn’t need to [directly obstruct us] because to go into Tibetan areas [of Lhasa] there were police everywhere and we had to continually show our passports. [Foreign ministry officials] didn’t have to follow us because people watched us wherever we went.156

Another correspondent on that Lhasa visit said that government officials blocked journalists’ access to key sites, including monasteries and the city’s main mosque.157 On March 28, 2008, foreign ministry officials tried to cut short foreign journalists’ access to a group of monks who courageously approached the correspondents during their guided official tour of Lhasa’s Jokang monastery and, in the brief moments available to them, told the journalists of serious ongoing persecution and repression. “When the monks approached us, the [MOFA] minders kept trying to pull us away, gently but insistently, citing a ‘time schedule problem.’”158

The Chinese government’s second media tour, from April 9-13, went to several towns in Gansu province. Potential local sources on the streets of the Gansu town of Machu were apparently very hesitant to speak openly to reporters within earshot of the correspondents’ official minders. “Although the Chinese and foreign journalists were invited to interview people on the street in Machu most conversations quickly ceased as government officials accompanying the tour approached.”159 Tibetan monks at Xiahe’s Labrang monastery who did approach foreign correspondents during that tour on April 9  and openly spoke of government repression were reportedly later “imprisoned, beaten and in some cases subjected to electric shock torture,” as a punishment for speaking out.160

A Japanese news agency reporter and photographer who were given special Chinese government permission to visit Lhasa in April 2008 were also subjected to “very disruptive” constraints on their reporting freedom while in the city. The two journalists were “followed the entire time” by police while they were in Lhasa and denied access to monasteries to interview monks.161 The government hosted a third “carefully scripted” four-day government-organized trip of foreign journalists to Tibetan areas which began in Lhasa on June 2. Correspondents on the trip noted a heavy police presence on the streets, similar to that seen during the late March visit.162 The most recent government-organized foreign media trip to Lhasa was on the occasion of the June 21 Olympics torch relay. Correspondents “were confined to fixed points along the route” and not permitted to freely report.163

Foreign correspondents who have tried to document how events unfolded in Tibetan areas through interviews with local residents outside of the areas have been stymied by those potential sources’ fear of retribution for talking to foreign media. “People are very, very scared to talk. And when you talk to people coming out of the area, often they’ll say, ‘I just can’t tell you what’s happening. It’s too dangerous. It’s too dangerous for me.’”164

The Government’s Propaganda Offensive and its Consequences for Foreign Journalists

China’s state media initially limited its coverage of the Tibetan protests to text reports by the official Xinhua News Agency.165 Chinese government censors blocked CNN and BBC television reports of the events in Lhasa on March 14-15, 2008, and Internet access to Google News, Yahoo, and YouTube.166

The first Xinhua reports, published on March 15, emphasized that Lhasa was “calm” and that the Tibetan people’s spiritual leader-in-exile, the Dalai Lama, was responsible for the violence.167 Those reports failed to provide a context for the riots which included anger and frustration among Tibetans at unpopular elements of Chinese rule. Instead, the Xinhua reports blamed the violence on well-armed Tibetan rioters who “came fully-prepared [for violence] and meant harm.”168 Xinhua reporters said they witnessed rioters “carrying backpacks filled with stones and bottles of inflammable liquids, some holding iron bars, wooden sticks and long knifes.”169 A “commentary” article that day described the Dalai Lama as “the self-described peace teacher [who] turned the tranquil holy city of Lhasa into a land of terror.”170

On March 17, Xinhua quoted Tibet’s government chairman, Qiangba Puncog, as insisting that security forces neither carried nor used “any destructive weapons” in restoring calm to Lhasa,171 a claim at odds with the eyewitness reports of James Miles, China correspondent for The Economist, that some police units had carried and fired guns while quelling the rioting.172 That day Xinhua began to report that the Lhasa rioting was specifically aimed at disrupting the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.173 That same day, other state media outlets began to cover the March 14-15 events in Lhasa.174

After days of ignoring and then playing-down protests…television channels broadcast hours of Friday’s anti-Chinese protests in Lhasa and the aftermath. Employees at the CCTV state television channel’s English service were instructed to keep broadcasting footage of burned-out shops and Chinese wounded in attacks. No peaceful demonstrators were shown.175

On March 19, official coverage began to insist that western media coverage of the events in Tibetan areas was fundamentally biased. Xinhua cited Tibet-born former National People’s Congress Standing Committee member Ragdi (who has only one name), who described foreign journalists as “hypocrites” seeking to “slander our legitimate efforts” to maintain order in Lhasa.176 This story failed to mention that the Chinese government had systematically evicted foreign journalists from Lhasa, the rest of Tibet, and Tibetan communities in neighboring provinces including Gansu, Sichuan, Qinghai, and Yunnan. This piece was soon followed by a barrage of criticism over “biased and sometimes dishonest reports,” particularly regarding allegedly deliberate errors in the captions of photo images.177

The pictures illustrate how news can be manipulated. The BBC News website carries a picture with the caption saying “There is a heavy military presence in Lhasa,” while the photo clearly shows an ambulance bearing the red cross symbol. The American Fox News website published a photo with the caption “Chinese troops parade handcuffed Tibetan prisoners in trucks,” while the photo shows Indian police dragging a man away. used a cropped photo of Chinese military trucks, cutting off the half of the picture showing a crowd of rioters throwing rocks at the trucks. More notably, the websites of German’s Bild newspaper, N-TV and RTL TV, and the Washington Post all used pictures of baton-wielding Nepalese police in clashes with Tibetan protesters in Katmandu, claiming that the officers were Chinese police.178 

The news agencies responded by either making corrections or clarifying the context. CNN stated that the photo singled out  by the China Daily as proof of the network’s “biased” reporting had been cropped “to fit the standard story size of the [network’s web] site.”179 German TV station n-tv Nachrichtenfernsehen GmbH issued an apology for having used Tibetan-related news photos “in the wrong context” and the Washington Post corrected a caption on a photo which the newspaper said had been “incorrectly associated with a photo from Nepal.”180  

Those corrections and explanations did little to stop the vitriolic state media attacks against alleged anti-China foreign media “bias.” Instead the state media campaign only gained momentum in the days and weeks that followed and explicitly implicated all western media in those accusations of bias, regardless of whether there was any evidence for such allegations against individual western media outlets.

In late March, the China Daily launched a separate website titled “Biased Reports Hurt China” which provided an updated listing of the alleged distortions in western media reporting on Tibet.181 It also linked to a separate website,, which dedicates itself to “expos[ing] the lies and distortions in the western media.”182 On March 27, MOFA spokesman Qin Gang described western media reports on the Lhasa protests as a “textbook of bad examples” and described as a reflection of “Chinese people condemning and criticizing irresponsible, unprofessional, and immoral reports.”183

Qin’s rhetoric apparently reflected a Chinese government decision to launch an “unprecedented, ferocious media war against the biased western press…[in which] some contents of the old rule book could be thrown out of the window at this special time,” a Beijing-based Chinese newspaper editor told the South China Morning Post.184 The director of the State Council Information Office’s press department denied that allegation of a “media war,” but reiterated that “some foreign journalists were not objective and fair.”185

On April 17, 2008, a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Jiang Yu described CNN commentator Jack Cafferty’s remarks as “vile,” that he had called China’s leaders “a bunch of goons and thugs” and demanded CNN apologize.186 Xinhua devoted at least 10 headline stories from April 9 to May 15 about Cafferty’s alleged “hatred” of the Chinese people,187 the most recent of which was a May 15, 2008, story which indicated that CNN president Jim Walton had formally apologized for Cafferty’s remarks.188  

In late March, a group of 29 high-profile Chinese writers, activists, and lawyers circulated a letter expressing concerns about the substance and tone of state media coverage in the absence of the counterbalance of foreign media reporting. The letter warned that “At present, the one-sided propaganda of the official Chinese media is having the effect of stirring up inter-ethnic animosity and aggravating an already tense situation.”189 And by the end of April, following a month of nationalist protests, Chinese state media reports began to call for a cooling of public anger over alleged western media bias “lest anti-western protests…spiral out of the authorities’ control.”190

Threats Against Foreign Correspondents in China

Those calls for a cooling of public anger came too late to prevent serious threats to foreign journalists. On May 1, the FCCC estimated that “at least 10 foreign correspondents 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.”191 The threats consisted of angry phone calls, emails, and text messages from Chinese individuals who claimed to be incensed by what they perceived as “biased” western reporting. Those threats ranged from the oblique blog message, “Be aware, there will be a settling of accounts”192 aimed at Jane Macartney, China correspondent for the U.K. newspaper The Times in late March to a blog threat against Melinda Liu, China bureau chief for Newsweek, which stated “I can kill her without even reading what she writes.”193

Targets of the harassment campaign included reporters from the Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today whose names, contact details, and other personal information were posted on several domestic websites in early April with accusations that they had “fabricated untrue news about Tibet.”194 Melinda Liu, president of the Beijing-based FCCC, described the death threats as, “hateful and shrill” and particularly disturbing in that they also extended to the family members of some correspondents.195 “The comments were obscene and threatening, for example, ‘Look out for your two daughters,’” Liu said.196 China’s foreign ministry rejected correspondents’ suggestions that the government had intentionally leaked that personal data to Chinese bloggers: “We did not and will not publicize the mobile phone numbers and other personal data of foreign journalists on the websites.”197

Members of the FCCC had numerous “informal” conversations with government officials from state organizations, including the foreign ministry, BOCOG, and the State Council from mid-March until end-April about the death threats and harassment experienced by foreign correspondents.198 “When asked to follow up, these officials sometimes said ‘it is not our department's responsibility.’”199 Names and contact details of foreign correspondents alleged to have “fabricated news about Tibet” continue to circulate on domestic websites in China. “The details got posted [on] April 2 [and] to my knowledge the powers-that-be have not removed them [because] they are still on plenty of sites.”200 As one of the threatened correspondents told Human Rights Watch:

[The threats] are being allowed [to linger on websites] by the government and [that inaction] reflects pretty poorly on it. It seems that any objective report leaves [correspondents] open to accusations that you are a “splittist” out to destroy the country. Are foreign journalists in China now to be concerned about their personal safety?201

The threats prompted the temporary closure of one foreign television news bureau in Beijing and the temporary relocation of the bureau chiefs of two Beijing-based foreign media outlets.202

The campaign against alleged western media bias has also affected, at least temporarily, foreign correspondents’ capacity to effectively report in China. “Some sources just won’t talk to us anymore,” Liu said. “They’re afraid of being called ‘traitors.’”203 On April 29, 2008, the Washington Post reported that a source canceled a previously agreed interview, explaining “I’m pretty patriotic.”204 

94 Human Rights Watch interview with a Beijing-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, March 29, 2008.

95 The Chinese government officially declared Tibet the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) in 1965, “Lhasa marks 40th founding anniversary of TAR,” Xinhua News Agency (Beijing), September 2, 2005, (accessed on June 13, 2008).

96  Human Rights Watch, Trials of a Tibetan Monk — The Case of Tenzin Delek, vol. 16, no. 1 (C), February 2004,

97  Ibid.

98 “Scolding an Errant Reporter,” Tim Johnson posted to China Rises (blog), May 15, 2007, (accessed on May 14, 2008).

99 “China issues regulations on foreign media's coverage at 2008 Olympics,” Xinhua News Agency (Beijing), December 1, 2006, (accessed May 14, 2008).

100 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Jiang Yu's Regular Press Conference on 13 February 2007, “February 14, 2007, (accessed May 14, 2008).

101 “Scolding an Errant Reporter,” Tim Johnson posted to China Rises (blog), May 15, 2007, (accessed on May 14, 2008).

102  “China, India, Nepal: Free Tibetan Protesters,” Human Rights Watch news release, March 14, 2008, http://china/

103  Ibid.

104  Ibid.

105 “China: Restrain Forces from Violently Attacking Protesters in Tibet,” Human Rights Watch news release, March 15, 2008, _violently_attacking_protesters_in_tibet.

106  Ibid.

107 Henry Sanderson, “Monks among 30 sentenced to 3 years to life in jail by Chinese court for Tibet violence,” Associated Press (Beijing), April 29, 2008.

108 “China: Tibetan Detainees at Serious Risk of Torture and Mistreatment,” Human Rights Watch news release, March 19, 2008,

109 Christopher Bodeen, “Tibetan entertainer detained in China following anti-government protests,” Associated Press (Beijing), April 16, 2008.

110  Greg Baker, “China Blankets Tibetan Areas with Troops,” Associated Press (Beijing), March 20, 2008.

111 Robert Barnet, “Thunder From Tibet: review of The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama by Pico Ayer,” New York Review of Books,  vol 55, no. 9, May 29, 2008, May 14, 2008).

112  Choi Chi-yuk, “HK print, TV journalists ejected from Lhasa hotel after night raid,” South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), March 18, 2008.

113 Ibid.

114 Sven Hanson, “George Blume and Kristin Kupfer are being forced by the Chinese police to leave the autonomous region of Tibet,” Die Tegeszeitung (Berlin), March 20, 2008, (accessed May 2, 2008).

115 “‘Rioters in control of central Lhasa:’ Journalist,” Kyodo News Agency (Beijing), March 14, 2008.

116  Human Rights Watch Interview with James Miles, China correspondent for The Economist, Beijing, March 27, 2008.

117  Ibid.

118  Bill Savadove and Choi Chi-yukin, “Travel visas on hold as foreigners double back to Chengdu,” The South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), March 16, 2008.

119  Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang’s Regular Press Conference on March 20, 2008, March 21, 2008, (accessed on June 2, 2008).

120  Ibid.

121  Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang’s Regular Press Conference on March 25, March 26, 2008, (accessed on June 2, 2008).

122  Margaret Warner, “In China, an Evolving Effort to Establish a Place on World Stage,” PBS Online NewsHour, May 29, 2008, (accessed June 3, 2008).

123  “The Final Countdown: 100 Days Ahead of the Beijing Olympics, Foreign Correspondents Club of China Concerned about Deteriorating Reporting Conditions,” Foreign Correspondents Club of China press release, April 30, 2008, (accessed May 1, 2008).

124  Jonathan Watts, “Dispatches: Reporting from China: Mountain roads are a greater risk than the police,” The Guardian (London), March 24, 2008.

125 Human Rights Watch interview with a Beijing-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, April 1, 2008.

126 Human Rights Watch interview with a Shanghai-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), Shanghai, April 6, 2008.

127 Ibid.

128  Human Rights Watch interview with a Beijing-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, April 24, 2008.

129  Ibid.

130  Ibid.

131  Human Rights Watch interview with a Beijing-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), Shanghai, April 5, 2008.

132  Ibid.

133  Human Rights Watch interview with a Beijing-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, April  1, 2008.

134 Ibid.

135 Human Rights Watch interview with Richard Spencer, The Daily Telegraph correspondent, Beijing, March 30, 2008.

136  Ibid.

137  Ibid.

138 Human Rights Watch interview with a Beijing-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, March 28, 2008.

139 Ibid.

140 Human Rights Watch interview with a Beijing-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, March 29, 2008.

141 Ibid.

142 Human Rights Watch interview with a Beijing-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, March 25, 2008.

143 Ibid.

144 Ibid.

145 Human Rights Watch interview with a Beijing-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), March 29, 2008.

146 Ibid.

147 Ibid.

148 Human Rights Watch interview with a Beijing-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, March 28, 2008.

149 Human Rights Watch interview with Katri Makkonen, Finnish Broadcasting Corporation’s China correspondent, Beijing, March 24, 2008.

150 Ibid.

151 Ibid.

152 Human Rights Watch interview with a Shanghai-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), Shanghai, April 5, 2008.

153 Ibid.

154  David Barboza, “Diplomats end Tibet visit; Anxiety grows over unrest,” The New York Times (New York), March 30, 2008.

155 Stephanie Nebehay, “China rejects bid by UN rights boss for April visit,” Reuters (Geneva), April 10, 2008.

156 Human Rights Watch interview with a Shanghai-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), Shanghai, April 6, 2008.

157 Human Rights Watch interview with a Beijing-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, April 3, 2008.

158 Ibid.

159  Lucy Hornby, “Tension grips remote riot-hit Chinese town,” Reuters(Beijing), April 11, 2008.

160 Nicholas D. Kristof, “The Terrified Monks,” The New York Times (New York), May 16, 2008.

161  “The Space for Freedom of Expression of Foreign Journalists in China,” Melinda Liu, Foreign Correspondents Club of China President, Century Novotel in Hong Kong, May 1, 2008.

162  Kristine Kwok, “Tibetan officials take media on Lhasa tour,” South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), June 3, 2008.

163  Josephine Ma, “Lhasa in lockdown for Olympic torch relay’s most sensitive leg,” South China Morning Post  (Hong Kong), June 22, 2008.

164 “China Works to Control News from Tibet Protests,” National Public Radio Weekend Edition, March 16, 2008, (accessed May 2, 2008).

165  Loretta Chao, “News of Protests is Hard to Find in China – in Media or Online,” The Wall Street Journal (New York), March 18, 2008.

166  “China Tries to Thwart News Reports from Tibet,” The New York Times (New York), March 18, 2008.

167  “Lhasa reverts to calm,” Xinhua News Agency (Beijing), March 15, 2008.

168  Ibid.

169  Ibid.

170 “Commentary: Stop the hand behind the Lhasa terror,” Xinhua News Agency (Beijing), March 15, 2008.

171  Ibid.

172 Human Rights Watch Interview with James Miles, The Economist correspondent, Beijing, March 27, 2008.

173  “Governor denies use of lethal force in Lhasa riot; indignant over Dalai’s lies,” Xinhua News Agency (Beijing), March 17, 2008.

174  Tania Branigan, “Tibet: Media coverage: State TV switches to non-stop footage of Chinese under attack,” The Guardian (London), March 18, 2008.

175  Ibid.

176  Ibid.

177  Ye Jun, “Riot Reports Show Media Bias in West,” China Daily (Beijing), March 22, 2008.

178 Ibid.

179  Geoffrey A. Fowler, “Chinese take aim at news media on Tibet,” The Wall Street Journal (New York), March 26, 2008.

180  Ibid.

181 “Biased Reports Hurt China,” China Daily, (accessed May 16, 2008).

182 (accessed May 16, 2008).

183 Zhang Haizhou, “Reports Were ‘Textbook of Bad Examples,’” China Daily (Beijing), March 28, 2008.

184  “Censor loosens strings in publicity war,” South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), April 9, 2008.

185  “China denies ‘media war’ over coverage of Tibet,” Xinhua News Agency (Beijing), April 9, 2008.

186  “China urges again that CNN sincerely apologizes over insulting words,” Xinhua News Agency(Beijing), April 17, 2008.

187  Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Jiang Yu’s Remarks on CNN Commentator Cafferty's Insulting Remarks against China,” April 15, 2008 Press Conference, (accessed on May 16, 2008).

188 “URGENT: CNN president apologizes for Jack Cafferty's remarks on China,” Xinhua News Agency (Beijing), May 15, 2008.

189  Cara Anna, “A choke-hold on information in Tibetan areas,” Associated Press (Beijing), March 22, 2008.

190  Peter Feuilherade, “Media Analysis: Chinese media urge caution lest anti-Western protests escalate,” BBC Media Monitoring, April 21, 2008.

191  “The Final Countdown: 100 Days Ahead of the Beijing Olympics, Foreign Correspondents Club of China Concerned about Deteriorating Reporting Conditions,” Foreign Correspondents Club of China press release, April 30, 2008, (accessed May 1, 2008).

192  Jane Macartney, “How Jane Macartney of The Times became the most hated woman in China,” The Times (London), March 29, 2008.

193  “The Space for Freedom of Expression of Foreign Journalists in China,” Melinda Liu, Foreign Correspondents Club of China President, Century Novotel in Hong Kong, May 1, 2008.

194   “The Final Countdown: 100 Days Ahead of the Beijing Olympics, Foreign Correspondents Club of China Concerned about Deteriorating Reporting Conditions,” Foreign Correspondents Club of China press release, April 30, 2008, (accessed May 1, 2008).

195  “The Space for Freedom of Expression of Foreign Journalists in China,” Melinda Liu, Foreign Correspondents Club of China President, Century Novotel in Hong Kong, May 1, 2008.

196  Ibid.

197  Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “Foreign Ministry Spokesman Jiang Yu’s Regular Press Conference on April 8, 2008,”  April 9, 2008, http:/

198  Email communication from Melinda Liu, president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, to Human Rights Watch, May 6, 2008.

199  Ibid.

200  Email communication from a Beijing-based foreign correspondent (name withheld) to Human Rights Watch, May 4, 2008.

201  Human Rights Watch interview with a Beijing-based foreign correspondent (name withheld), Beijing, April 4, 2008.

202 “The Space for Freedom of Expression of Foreign Journalists in China,” Melinda Liu, Foreign Correspondents Club of China President, Century Novotel in Hong Kong, May 1, 2008.

203  “The Space for Freedom of Expression of Foreign Journalists in China,” Melinda Liu, Foreign Correspondents Club of China President, Century Novotel in Hong Kong, May 1, 2008.

204  Edward Cody, “For Chinese, a Shift in Mood, From Hospitable to Hostile,” Washington Post (Washington), April 29, 2008.