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Get On the Bus

June 24, 2008

Geoffrey York,
The Globe and Mail (Canada)
June 22, 2008

LHASA - It was the loud man with the megaphone, herding us
relentlessly onto the buses, who symbolized the worst of our escorted
tour of Tibet.

The official press tour is one of the rituals of Communist China, as
time-honored as the ceremony to raise the Chinese flag at Tiananmen
Square every morning. It's far from the ideal way to gather news.

But with Tibet still tightly sealed off from the outside world, I
accepted an invitation to join a government-sponsored press tour to
Lhasa this weekend, realizing it was the only way to get even a
limited glimpse into this locked-down region.

It was only the second time that foreign journalists have been
permitted to enter Tibet since the wave of sometimes-bloody protests
that began on March 10, so I was keen to get a first-hand look into
the forbidden territory.

But an official press tour can be a humiliating experience. Our
itinerary was filled with weirdly irrelevant events, including a
handicrafts exhibition, a visit to a tourist village, and a press
conference to announce a performance of traditional dance. The man
with the megaphone was constantly barking at us, hectoring us to move
faster. The schedule was packed with activity from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30
p.m., to keep us busy and distracted from the real news.

Every moment was pre-programmed. To ensure that we didn't miss
anything, we were given unsolicited wake-up calls at 6:15 a.m.,
urging us out of bed and into the program.

We were lodged in a government hotel, far from the historic centre of
Lhasa, to make it even harder for us to have any independent contact
with monks or other malcontents.

At the allocated time for dinner on Friday, I managed to slip away
from the hotel and hail a taxi to the old town, where I was able to
see the massive security presence, including thousands of
paramilitary police in camouflage uniforms, in advance of the Olympic
torch relay the next day. There were paramilitary troops and regular
police on every corner.

A few other journalists also slipped away from the hotel. The next
day, we were reprimanded by a government minder, who claimed to be
worried about our personal safety. "This is Lhasa," she warned
ominously. "You could get lost, you could be detained. It could
happen anywhere, particularly Lhasa. When you're out, we're really
concerned. Anything could happen."

When I protested that Lhasa seemed perfectly safe -- especially with
police stationed on every street corner – the minder made a vague
reference to "intelligence" reports about possible attacks.

(The official minders were a constant source of disinformation. When
asked why all the shops near the Olympic torch route were shuttered
on Saturday, one minder claimed that Lhasa's shops are always closed
on Saturdays.)

The truth is, of course, that the Chinese authorities don't want the
foreign media to talk to Tibetans who are unhappy with Chinese rule.
The monks, who led the March protests, were kept far out of sight
during the press tour. One journalist found a monk in a back corner
of the Sera monastery. He said nothing, but burst quietly into tears.

I talked to a few Tibetan shopkeepers near the Jokhang temple, the
holiest Tibetan temple at the heart of Lhasa's old town. They were
too wary to say much – but they made it clear they were suffering
greatly from China's decision to prohibit foreign tourists from entering Tibet.

After I filed my first story on Friday, I took a quick look at the
Globe's website. China's censors had blocked my story. The first few
paragraphs were visible on my screen, but then it ended in
mid-sentence and the website crashed. It was a strange irony: I was
invited, but censored.

It's interesting to recall that China promised full press freedom as
one of its pledges to the International Olympic Committee when it was
awarded the 2008 Olympics. With more and more of China effectively
barred to journalists – including Tibet, the ethnically Tibetan
regions of western China, and now even some parts of the Sichuan
earthquake zone – the pledge of press freedom seems to be fading every day.

A footnote on the press tour: the Chinese state media have claimed
that 29 foreign media organizations were invited to Lhasa for the
torch relay. What they didn't mention was the peculiar composition of
the press contingent.

Not a single newspaper from the United States or Britain was invited.
The group was heavily weighted towards TV crews. Geography was
apparently the main criteria, with one media organization invited
from each major country. The U.S. was represented only by an NBC
crew, while the New York Times and Washington Post were excluded.
Britain was represented by a BBC crew, while nobody was allowed from
the Times, the Telegraph or the Guardian. Almost half of the invited
journalists were from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau.
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