Chinese authorities in Tibet have further tightened controls over information flows in the region, arresting Tibetans last year for sharing news and opinions on social media and for contacting relatives living in exile, according to rights groups and other experts.
Particular targets of censors and police were images of exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama shared on mobile phones and calls for the preservation of the Tibetan language, now under threat from government orders to establish Chinese as the main language of instruction in Tibetan schools.
Cedric Alviani—East Asia Bureau Chief of Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF)— told RFA’s Tibetan Service that freedom of expression in Tibetan areas of China, already heavily restricted, “has not improved due to the censorship and surveillance set up by the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party.”
“It is still extremely difficult and dangerous for Tibetans to investigate and smuggle information outside Tibet,” he said, adding that Beijing’s refusal to allow foreign journalists free access to Tibet has made it even harder for the outside world to assess conditions there.
RSF ranked China 177th out of 180 countries in an annual global press freedom index earlier this month.
“It’s much more dangerous [for Tibetans] to speak to foreign journalists or to overseas media like Radio Free Asia than it is for other Chinese people,” said Sarah Cook, Senior Research Analyst for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan for Freedom House.
“People there are subject to heavier reprisals than in other parts of China,” Cook said.
Increasingly tight curbs
International press freedom groups have highlighted China’s increasingly tight curbs on media workers across the country ahead of World Press Freedom Day Sunday.
Some of those sentenced to long prison terms last year in Tibetan areas had sought to draw attention to corrupt officials or environmental concerns, while others had simply voiced support for use of the Tibetan language or had shared images of the Dalai Lama, regarded by Chinese leaders as a dangerous separatist.
On Dec. 6, 2019, Anya Sengdra, a resident of Kyangche township in Qinghai’s Gade (in Chinese, Gande) county, was given a seven-year term after being arrested on charges of disturbing social order after he complained online about corrupt officials, illegal mining, and the hunting of protected wildlife.
Meanwhile, Sonam Palden, a 22-year-old Tibetan monk, disappeared after being arrested on Sept. 19 in Sichuan’s Ngaba (Aba) county after posting online comments criticizing Beijing’s policies in the region, and a Tibetan man named Lhadar, 36, was detained in October in Tibet’s Nagchu (Naqu) county and also vanished in custody.
“It is assumed he was arrested for ‘leaking state secrets,’” a local source told RFA in an earlier report, citing a charge often used to stop the spread of news of protests against Beijing’s rule in Tibetan areas or other information considered politically sensitive by authorities.
And on Feb. 20, 2019, Tsering Dorje, a 45-year-old resident of Peleb village in the Tashi Dzom township of Shigatse’s Dingri (Tingri) county in Tibet, was taken into custody only hours after speaking with his brother in exile about the importance of teaching the Tibetan language to their children.
“In the free world, people exchange information [like this] on a routine daily basis,” Karma Choying—Secretary to the International Relations Department of Tibet’s India-based exile government, the Central Tibetan Administration—told RFA in a recent interview.
“[But] these types of conversations are observed suspiciously by the Chinese government,” he said.
China’s restrictions on free speech and the sharing of information in Tibet violate China’s own laws, said James Tager, Director for Free Expression Research and Policy for the writers’ group PEN America.
“We should recall that China’s own constitutional system guarantees freedom of speech and the press, and that the Constitution as well as the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law contains significant protections for the rights of ethnic minorities within China,” Tager said.
“So when the international community asks the Chinese government to guarantee press freedom and free speech, including for those who speak or write or report in the Tibetan language and on Tibetan concerns, we are not making a radical demand,” he said.
“Instead, we are holding the Chinese government to its own words.”
Reported by RFA’s Tibetan Service. Translated by Tashi Wangchuk. Written in English by Richard Finney.