One particular target of official Chinese ire has been Voice of America (VOA) which, since 1990, has broadcast “accurate, objective, and comprehensive” news into Tibet, according to its mandate. VOA’s Tibetan-language broadcasts are frequently cited by Tibetans as their only alternative to state-controlled media, providing them precious access to their fellow Tibetans and to the global community through news stories that are not covered in China.
A recent China Daily article portrays VOA as a lead cause of the Tibetan self-immolation protests, describing VOA as a “stage” for the “instigators” of the self-immolations, an “evil hand,” and an “unseen killer” of Tibetans. The article accuses VOA of “committing crimes” against the Chinese people in general and the Tibetan people in particular who it describes as “poisoned” by watching or listening to VOA broadcasts.
These are serious charges given that VOA is fully funded by the United States Government, but the evidence brought forth in their support is decidedly unserious. China Daily veers into conspiracy theory territory when it alleges that the 2008 Tibetan uprising was coordinated by VOA by broadcasting secret messages to Tibetan listeners instructing them to “rise up” and “break, smash, rob, and burn” Lhasa. If there were the slightest bit of truth to these charges it would be easy for Beijing to corroborate them by providing evidence; VOA broadcasts are archived online and can be viewed on YouTube. Unremarkably, no substantiation of China Daily’s claims has been given, nor has there been evidence produced to support other official accusations that the self-immolations are being inspired or influenced from outside Tibet. Pema Thrinley, Chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region People’s Congress, recently claimed that Beijing has evidence of the Dalai Lama’s involvement with the self-immolations but also added the caveat that it was “inconvenient” to share it.
Another component of attacks against VOA is that its breaking coverage of the Tibetan self-immolation proves its complicity in the protests themselves – not only a spurious claim but a revealing insight into how news is officially managed in China. The VOA Tibetan service is a professional operation with an obviously greater focus on Tibetan issues than other international news agencies have. It stands to reason that they should frequently be the first to break stories about current events in Tibet.
Actually, if simply reporting on an event first is evidence of having caused it, Xinhua has some explaining to do. Xinhua congratulated itself for having been the first news organization to announce the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, beating other agencies by some 10 seconds. Is it then appropriate to condemn Xinhua as the instigator and invisible killer behind the Iraq War, or is covering the news the primary function of a news agency? Coverage does not equate to causation.
Song Ying, a researcher from the Beijing Foreign Studies University, is quoted in the China Daily article voicing an argument that seems to reveal the real problem Beijing has with VOA. She cites a broadcast from February 2013 in which “quotes in a VOA report were all directly taken from activists, and didn’t consider the Chinese government’s stance on this matter.” This gets more to the heart of the matter than the tinfoil hat claims about coded secret messages and arranging self-immolations. The Communist Party still considers propagandizing to be the primary duty of journalists.
But there is another more vulnerable target for official wrath. Now that increasing numbers of Tibetans are able to take pictures on their phones and contact international news organizations through the internet, there will certainly be more challenges to the official party line. Clear and strongly-voiced international criticism of unsubstantiated official attacks against VOA and the Dalai Lama could interject some caution in Beijing when it goes after its own citizens.