Tibet Reports by U.S.-Funded Radio Anger China
April 29, 2008; Page A7
HONG KONG -- The earliest reports of unrest in Tibet last month didn't come from a major newspaper, wire service or TV station. They came from a U.S.-funded shortwave radio broadcaster that advises listeners to get around Chinese signal jamming with tinfoil, plywood and rubber bands.
With a current annual budget of $34 million from Congress, Washington-based Radio Free Asia broadcasts news about Asia across the region in nine languages, including Mandarin, Tibetan and Uighur, a Turkic language used in China's Xinjiang province.
RFA's reporting on the crisis in Tibet has reignited longstanding ill will with China over the U.S. government's Cold War-era broadcasting system, while also highlighting a question that hangs over the radio service's mission: Is it a news outlet or a propaganda tool?
The Chinese government says the station has done "non-objective, unfair and unbalanced coverage of China for a long time," according to a foreign ministry spokeswoman. "We know many foreign media reprinted their stories about Tibet. These incorrect stories have resulted in much criticism from Chinese people and foreign media professionals. We hope RFA can spread objective, fair, balanced and true information about China in the future," she said. She didn't specify the errors.
RFA defends its work. "We are all ferociously competitive in getting the best, most credible news out first," says Sarah Jackson-Han, spokeswoman for the radio station.
RFA has no paid staff in Tibet. It has two freelancers who traveled there frequently until the recent unrest and a staff of more than 30 people in Washington who put out the Tibetan-language service. Some Buddhist monks in Tibet say they tune in to RFA to keep up with the news.
The scoop on the unrest in Tibet came from RFA's Tibetan talk show. On the morning of March 10 in Washington, an RFA reporter received an instant message through a Skype account from a regular source. The message said about 300 monks heading toward Lhasa were blocked by Chinese police. "There were some clashes between security forces and monks," the message said, adding, "Some of the monks were injured and about 50 to 60 monks were detained."
Using Skype, RFA's reporter contacted another source in Tibet, who corroborated the news of detentions. RFA then went live with the news from the studio in its Washington headquarters, broadcasting it across China.
RFA was also the first to report deaths in the violence. According to Ms. Jackson-Han, it received several calls from people who said they witnessed the events, including one who "actually saw two people die right in front of him after they were shot by the police," she said.
RFA's report was cited by newspapers around the world, including The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. China's government has since said about two dozen people died during the rioting in Lhasa, most of them ethnic Han Chinese. Tibetan exile groups say more than a hundred Tibetans were killed in the ensuing crackdown. The radio station later broke news about unrest among Uighurs in Xinjiang province, an area facing its own antigovernment, separatist tensions.
A Voice in the Wilderness
RFA broadcasts from the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean and about a dozen undisclosed locations. It relies on shortwave radio because a single transmitter can broadcast to an entire continent, depending on weather conditions, time of day and bursts of energy from the sun. The technology was developed in the 1920s and was used throughout the British Empire to relay messages between London and its far-flung colonies.
The Chinese government jams RFA broadcasts by broadcasting Chinese opera, funeral music, gongs, static or other interference on the same frequency, effectively boxing out the RFA transmission. China's State Administration of Radio Film and Television didn't respond to questions about jamming RFA.
|Tibetan monks in India listen to a Radio Free Asia report in March about a protest against the Beijing Olympics.|
The station's Web site, which is also blocked in China, features a recipe for how to modify a radio's antenna so that the jamming doesn't completely drown out RFA's broadcast. Necessary supplies include four cup hooks, two rubber bands or string, two sheets of tinfoil, two small wires and a piece of wood. "Plywood or a similar material is OK," the instructions read.
RFA was created by Congress in 1994. It runs under the aegis of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which also runs Voice of America. RFA executives deny claims that the station is affiliated with the Central Intelligence Agency. It says a station by the same name operating in the 1950s and unrelated to the current broadcaster may have had CIA ties.
RFA's scoops "have been won the hard way -- mainly by cultivating reliable sources in Tibet," the Broadcasting Board of Governors' chairman, James Glassman, wrote recently in a letter to Asia Times Online after the Hong Kong-based Web site published an article that said RFA worked for the CIA.
RFA has critics who say it gives too much air time to news about Chinese dissidents and internal strife. In a 1999 article in the Columbia Journalism Review, former VOA bureau chief Mark Hopkins wrote that "bias in programming is obvious" at RFA and its sister networks. Although they have a founding directive to be neutral, U.S. broadcasting directors "believe they have missions to influence the way foreigners think, live, and are governed," he wrote.
Hot Topic Again
Mr. Glassman's nomination to replace Karen Hughes as the undersecretary of state for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs has made the objectivity of government-sponsored broadcasts a political issue once again. Taking the stand in Congress in January, Mr. Glassman faced criticism for not making broadcasts in Iran sufficiently pro-America.
"We don't do propaganda," Mr. Glassman said. He said he would work to aggressively counter Islamist extremist messages, but he underscored that stations such as Voice of America "have to be honest." Mr. Glassman's nomination hasn't been approved.
Dick Richter, RFA's founding president, who retired in 2004, says when he first heard the idea for RFA, he was suspicious. "I thought this was going to be a broadcast station whose principle aim would be to appease the right wing Republican faction of the U.S. government and basically be a broadcaster whose principal aim would be to 'kill the Commies,'" he says. "But I said 'that is not what we are going to do.' The legislation says we have to be objective."
There are no reliable estimates of RFA's audience in China or around Asia. "In most of our target areas, people hide their listening from all but those they trust, and in North Korea, listeners have told us they hide their listening even from spouses and especially from children," says John Estrella, RFA's director of external relations.
RFA's reporters aren't officially allowed in many of the places it covers. They say they rely on telephone calls and encrypted Internet communication programs, such as Skype. The station sometimes hires people who have links to human-rights and labor organizations because they are well sourced, says Mr. Richter.
On RFA's call-in shows, listeners call collect to numbers that connect them with RFA's office in Washington and elsewhere, helping the broadcaster build sources and collect tips. RFA says its call-in numbers are sometimes jammed by computer-automated dialing.
Ms. Jackson-Han says RFA has covertly sent correspondents into areas closed off to journalists, such as the jungles around the border of Thailand and Myanmar, to investigate leads. Tipped off that a hospital in China might have been harvesting bodily organs from patients to sell, one reporter went through the hospital floor by floor, she says. "Our reporter could not confirm the organ harvesting, so we didn't touch the story," Ms. Jackson-Han says.