TIBET, THE TRUTH AND THE MEDIA
Finding out the truth about what is going on in Tibet has traditionally been hard because Tibet is so hard to get to and inhospitable once one is there. These days the same is true because the Chinese government works hard to make sure that news that makes China look bad doesn’t get out, sometimes closing down the entire region to foreigners, journalists and other outsiders,
Journalists' access to Tibet is tightly restricted and all information from the region is extremely difficult to confirm. Tourists often have an easier time getting to Tibet than journalists who need permission from the government to legally enter, which is rarely granted unless that government has some motive to give it. The Chinese government barred foreign reporters from traveling independently in Tibet. Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “Journalists on the tour were brought to several development projects by ministry officials, but were occasionally able to interview locals on their own. Tibetans interviewed independently expressed fear of the security forces and spoke on the condition of anonymity. Several journalists who have entered the region have been detained or forced to leave.[Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, July 24, 2010]
Tourists often have an easier time getting to Tibet than journalists who need permission from the government to legally enter, which is rarely granted unless that government has some motive to give it. Reporters that travel to Tibet have traditionally either had to sneak around or make a kind of Faustian deal with the Chinese government to deliver favorable reports in return for access to restricted places.
Cell phones, the Internet and digital cameras have help Tibetans spread the word among themselves and expose their plight to the outside world and helped the outside world communicate with them. In some places every Tibetan over 18 has a cell phone. Some Tibetans cut throw the Great Firewall censors with specially-rigged satellite dishes. The government has tried, with varying degrees of success, to prevent Tibetans from accessing information about exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and the exiled government on the Internet or via satellite television. Many Tibetans are still able to get such news, either via illegal satellite television or by skirting Chinese Internet restrictions. Villagers with satellite dishes can get Voice of American by pointing the dish in the proper direction and punching a 10 digit code into the signal receiver. Villagers from all over the village often show up to watch television.
Describing monks at the Longwu Temple in Qinghai after the riots in 2008, Melinda Liu wrote in Newsweek: “While boy novices...chanted late afternoon sutras in a golden prayer hall...older monks sat nearby sharing news they got from colleagues via wireless phone about arrests and body counts. Another monk flipped through a series of images in his digital 35 mm camera, showing...when Longwu’s lama’s defied rings of riot police...A senior lama opened his IBM laptop’ and ‘managed to call up video footage from clashes...between Tibetans and police in the surrounding town of Tingren.’
Chinese Development of the Tibetan Media
The Chinese have installed a communications network that makes it possible to communicate with the United States directly from Tibet. Teenagers in Lhasa use I-phones and surf the Internet at home and at Internet cafes. More and more mobile phone antennae are being erected to provide service for more and more distant places.
According to the Chinese government: There was no genuine news and publishing industry in Tibet before its peaceful liberation [invasion of Tibet in 1959], and the materials printed by the few wood-blockprintinghouses almost all involved scriptures. Tibet's news and publishing industry has grown gradually from nothing since its peaceful liberation. Especially over the past 20 years, books, newspapers and audio-visual materials have made rapid progress, and a news and publishing system for the region has already taken initial shape.[Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China, October 26, 2005]
Publishing is flourishing. Tibet has established four publishing houses and an audio-visual products duplication and manufacturing plant. The Tibet People's Publishing House has published over 6,600 book titles, with a distribution of over 78.9 million copies since it was founded some 30 years ago. Tibetan-language books account for approximately 80 percent, and nearly 100 titles have won national or regional prizes. At present, the region has the Tibet Xinhua Printing House and another 24 printing houses, and new technologies have been gradually introduced to printing enterprises, such as electronic composition, offset lithography, electronic color separation and polychrome printing.
There was no system of book distribution in Tibet before its peaceful liberation. But now, the region has 67 Xinhua bookstores at regional, prefectural and county levels. A network of book distribution coverings the region is now in place, offering a total of 90-odd million Tibetan-language books in more than 8,000 titles for the masses of Tibetan readers.
The publishing of newspapers and periodicals has also been developed steadily. The Tibet Daily started publication in 1956, and Tibetan Literature and Art in 1977. Now, a total of 52 newspapers and periodicals are published for the general public.
Radio, film and television have become indispensable parts of the cultural lives of the people of various ethnic groups in Tibet.Tibet's broadcasting, film and television industries have also been developed gradually since its peaceful liberation. TheLhasaCable Broadcasting Station was established in 1953; wireless broadcasting was started in 1958; the Tibet People's Broadcasting Station was formally founded in 1959; black-and-white and color television programs were trial-broadcast in 1978 and 1979;Tibet Televisionwas established formally in 1985; and the Production Center of the Tibet Dubbed Radio and Television Programs was put into use in 1995.
In the last four decades and more, the state and the autonomous region have invested a total of 530 million yuan in Tibet's radio, film and television industries. The Central Government as well as provinces and municipalities have also given their support to Tibet by supplying it with a large number of equipment and materials, more than 200 technicians and cadres in five groups, and trained a galaxy of broadcasting, film and television professionals. At present, Tibet has two radio broadcasting stations, 36 medium- and short-wave radio transmitting and relay stations, 45 county-level FM relay stations, two wireless television stations, 354 television relay stations and 1,475 ground satellite stations, bringing radio and TV programs to 65 and 55 percent of the people in Tibet, respectively, and TV programs to 75 percent of the residents in Lhasa and its vicinity.
Cell Phones, Satellite TV, Internet Censorship and Tibet
Cell phones, the Internet and digital cameras have help Tibetans spread the word among themselves and expose their plight to the outside world and helped the outside world communicate with them. In some places every Tibetan over 18 has a cell phone. Some Tibetans cut throw the Great Firewall censors with specially-rigged satellite dishes.
In many parts of Tibet you can find homes without toilets, without even out houses, but the residents have cell phones. Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine told the Washington Post he stayed at a house in Tibet as large as his own in the United States: “They could build shelters. But they didn’t build toilets...Went in the barnyard like their livestock. But many they have better cell phone coverage than we do at home. Communications, not cleanliness, is next to godliness.”
Describing monks at the Longwu Temple in Qinghai after the riots in 2008, Melinda Liu wrote in Newsweek: “While boy novices...chanted late afternoon sutras in a golden prayer hall...older monks sat nearby sharing news they got from colleagues via wireless phone about arrests and body counts. Another monk flipped through a series of images in his digital 35 mm camera, showing...when Longwu’s lama’s defied rings of riot police...A senior lama opened his IBM laptop” and “managed to call up video footage from clashes...between Tibetans and police in the surrounding town of Tingren.”
Villagers with satellite dishes can get Voice of American by pointing the dish in the proper direction and punching a 10 digit code into the signal receiver. Villagers from all over the village often show up to watch television. The Tibetan Daily is the official Chinese-government newspaper in Tibet.
“Landline, cell and Internet services in Tibetan areas were interrupted during the period of unrest. When the Chinese government became aware that Tibetan dissidents were using the video-sharing website YouTube as a text-free method to communicate, it shut it down. When image-sharing website Flickr emerged as a potential source of visual information, it was blocked. Tibetan radio broadcasts by Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of Tibet were jammed. A campaign against satellite dishes was intensified to limit the audience of VOA's direct-to-dish Tibet TV service. In order to cut off cell-phone based talk, text, and images, China reportedly limited service and tore down cell phone towers.” [Source: Peter Lee, Asia Times, April 8, 2009]
“When confronting in cyberspace supporters of Tibetan dissidents located outside of China, the Chinese government is apparently abetted by a group of hackers, acting either pro bono or with government encouragement. The hackers disrupt websites, harass activists and, it transpires, organize extensive espionage operations against targeted computers around the world.”
Lobsang Sangay on Pluses and Minuses of the Internet and Tibet
Lobsang Sangay was the leader of the Central Tibet Administration (CTA) — Tibet’s government in exile — until 2021. PaoPao reported: “For the Tibetan government, digital communications have offered Chinese hackers a welcome point of attack. But Sangay also emphasizes the positive sides of the internet: “Despite the Firewall, information breaks through, and is exchanged. That is happening, and that is not something that the Chinese government or any other government can prevent.”He points to the 2008 protests in Tibet as one example. In the protests, which some dubbed “the cellphone revolution”, written reports, videos and photos from eyewitnesses were able to make their way to the rest of the world via cellphones.[Source: pao-pao.net, November 5, 2014]
“Additionally, the Internet has allowed the Tibetan Central Administration in Dharamsala, home of about 100,000 Tibetans, to strengthen its bonds with the approximately 50,000 exiled Tibetans living elsewhere. Sangay says that the exile community, “scattered across some forty countries”, keeps in touch mainly through the internet. “The internet has been very vital. The other day, I was speaking to Tibetans in Belgium. I asked them how many log in to Tibet.net, our website, and how many watch Tibetan online TV. About 40 percent raised their hands.” Tibetans from inside Tibet even manage to send Sangay “one-off messages” via Facebook from time to time. “Things like: ‘I wish you well’, from Facebook accounts that are immediately deleted.” /*\
“Tibetans inside and outside of China now also communicate constantly via WeChat, but that is not without danger. A year ago, two monks in Tibet were arrested and jailed after posting pictures of self-immolations via the chat app. “Many say it’s very dangerous, because it’s an app by a Chinese company,” Sangay concedes. Still, he also considers “very helpful and informative” as long as it used to discuss safe topics. /*\
“The Tibetan administration consciously abstains from contacting Tibetans inside China, “for fear that we might jeopardize them,” Sangay says. “We get a little less than 100,000 readers to our website every month, and we know many are from inside Tibet and China as well. We know it’s happening, but we really don’t make deliberate efforts [to contact them], and we also don’t keep track.” /*\
“So will the Internet ultimately be a force for good or evil? Sangay doesn’t know. “It all depends on who uses it. For good, if more good people use it.” On the one hand, he is awed by how nowadays, “in zero seconds, at almost zero cost, you can send vast volumes of information.” But he worries about the security side of the Internet. “Ultimately, the [power] dynamic is so asymmetrical. One has wealth, and control over access to stronger and better technology, and one doesn’t.” That, of course, is a power dynamic that the Tibetan leader has long ago gotten accustomed to. “I think the David and Goliath battle will go on, even on the internet,” Sangay says. “Ultimately, if David will prevail, we will have to see.” /*\
China Seizes TVs, Satellite Equipment in Tibetan Area
In December 2012, Reuters reported: “Chinese authorities have confiscated televisions from 300 monasteries in a heavily Tibetan part of the west of the country and dismantled satellite equipment that broadcast "anti-China" programs, prompted by Tibetan self-immolations in the region. Five self-immolations occurred in Tibetan-dominated Huangnan prefecture in Qinghai province. [Source: Reuters, December 27, 2012]
The government in Huangnan said its approach in tackling self-immolations comprised of "guiding public opinion on the Dalai issue", increasing patrols and "blocking outside harmful information", according to the news agency, which is managed by the Qinghai government. "At this critical moment for maintaining social stability in Huangnan prefecture ... (we must) strengthen measures and fully fight the special battle against self-immolations," the article said. "We do not know anything about it," an official from the Huangnan prefecture government told Reuters by telephone, when asked to confirm the report, before hanging up.
The article said the prefecture's agricultural and pastoral areas had relied on certain satellite equipment "to watch and listen to overseas, anti-China programs". The local government would invest 8.64 million yuan ($1.39 million) to install 50 transmitters that would broadcast 70 percent of the prefecture's television channels, the report said.
Arrests of Independent News Sources in Tibet
In October 2013, Reporters without Borders reported: “The Chinese authorities have stepped up their persecution of independent Tibetan news providers in recent weeks, arresting three writers who are frequent information sources for external observers on the pretext that they carried out “political activities aimed at destroying social stability and dividing the Chinese homeland.” “Every arrest of a Tibetan who tried to inform his peers and the outside world about the dramatic situation in Tibet plunges the region further into isolation,” Reporters Without Borders said. [Source: Reporters without Borders, October 16, 2013 ~~]
“A Tibetan exile known only as Tharpa told Reporters Without Borders that he learned from two local sources that Kalsang Choedhar, a monk from Palyul monastery, was arrested in the market in Sog, in eastern Tibet, on 12 October for circulating information about a two-week-old crackdown by the Chinese authorities in Driru county. Choedhar’s mobile phone was confiscated following his arrest and he is currently being held incommunicado in an unknown location. Hundreds of Tibetan monks from Palyul monastery demonstrated outside Palyul county government offices and a police station to demand Choedhar’s release. Officials said he had been transferred to Chamdo. ~~
“Tsultrim Gyaltsen, a 27-year-old Tibetan writer who uses the pen-name of “Shokdril,” was arrested in Khardrong, in Driru province, on 11 October, and a 25-year-old associate known only as Yulgal was arrest the next day. Both are accused of “political activities aimed at destroying social stability and dividing the Chinese homeland.” Their current place of detention and physical condition are not known. Gyaltsen’s computer, mobile phone, books and other personal effects were confiscated by Chinese security officials who went to his home at 1 a.m., witnesses said. A former monk, Gyaltsen has written two books about Tibet and used to edit a Tibetan-language magazine called The New Generation. Yulgal is a former Security Bureau officer who resigned because of the “political” nature of his work. ~~
“The manner in which the three are being held is similar to that use with Lobsang Namygal, a Tibetan poet also known by the pen-name of “Sangming,” who has been held incommunicado ever since his arrest on 15 May 2012 for publishing the Dalai Lama’s banned speeches and other politically sensitive works about Tibet. Namygal’s detention was kept secret for more than a year. His family knew absolutely nothing about his whereabouts until March 2013, when they learned that he was probably being held in Chengdu prison (in Sichuan province) although they still did not know why. It was only in September that the authorities confirmed that he was being held in Chengdu and gave the grounds for his arrest. They also confirmed that he was not permitted any visits. He still has not been allowed to speak to a lawyer or receive visitors. ~~
“An employee of Chengdu’s Buddha Cultural Centre until his arrest, Namygal is the author of a book of poems that express his views and arguments in favour of Tibetan independence. He was previously held for a year after being arrested in 2008 in connection with demonstrations in Lhasa linked to the Beijing Olympics. ~~
“The situation of news and information providers is worrying throughout China but particularly in Tibet, where any criticism of the Chinese authorities is severely punished. Chinese embassy officials in Thailand directly threatened the French journalist Cyril Payen after France 24 broadcast his documentary “Seven Days in Tibet” in May and tried to get the TV station to remove it from its website.
Beijing Uses Fake Twitter Account to Spread Tibet Propaganda
In July 2014, London-based Free Tibet reported that Beijing has created at least 100 fake Twitter accounts to spread propaganda about Tibet and other Chinese concerns. According to AFP: The social networking site is blocked within China, but Free Tibet said it had identified around 100 accounts — many of them bearing Western names, usually a combination of two forenames — as "undoubtedly fake", adding there could be "hundreds more". They are dedicated to circulating China's message on Tibet and other issues. Profile pictures included photographs of US schoolgirls taken from professional photographers' websites, models, commercial stock images and images of celebrities including the late Pink Floyd singer Syd Barrett, it added. [Source: AFP, July 22, 2014 -]
“The roughly 20 accounts it highlighted were suspended, but the US-based China Digital Times, which tracks Chinese Internet and media activity, posted images of tweets by one of them, tomhugo148. They included: "Tibetans hail bumper harvest of highland barley", and "How People of China Perceive Dalai Lama". Free Tibet did not give evidence of who had set up the accounts, but described them as "China’s latest attempt to persuade the world that Tibet is a safe, protected and happy Chinese province". The content disseminated includes attacks on the Dalai Lama — one tweet attacking the Tibetan spiritual leader has been retweeted 6,555 times, it said. They tweeted identical or very similar content, sometimes simultaneously, and the postings had "minimal 'personal' content" and instead provided links to Chinese Tibet-related sites. "The extensive nature of these abuses and apparently large number of suspicious accounts makes the provision of a definitive and comprehensive list impossible," it added. -
On the tomhugo148 fake account, Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “There’s a lot to admire about Tom Hugo, and not just the washboard abs that are a glaring feature of his Twitter account profile photo. For starters, Tom Hugo seems to be well-versed in Chinese, and he evidently cares deeply about the Tibetan people, judging from the profusion of messages he has posted on Twitter in recent months: There are photographs of Tibetans in “unique exotic dress,” articles showcasing the Tibetan people’s deep appreciation for China’s governance of the region and video clips that portray happy Tibetans “Tibetans hail bumper harvest of highland barley,” read the headline on one recent posting. There’s only one problem with Tom Hugo’s Twitter account: It’s fake. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, July 21, 2014]
“The visage accompanying the account belongs to a Brazilian model namedFelipe Berto, and nearly every video, article and photograph the ersatz Tom Hugo tweets comes via propaganda websites linked to the Chinese government. “When it comes to Tibet, nothing that China does surprises us, but this appears to be something new,” Alistair Currie, the media manager for Free Tibet, told the New York Times.“It’s an insidious effort to change the message and muddy the waters about Tibet.”
“Although there is no direct evidence to link the Chinese government to the phony accounts, the content and breadth of the effort would suggest the involvement of a state actor. The subterfuge is not dissimilar to that carried out by members of China’s so-called Fifty Cent Party, the government-paid lurkers who earn 0.5 renminbi per posting on Internet message boards and chat rooms in an attempt to sway public opinion on issues deemed politically delicate by the Communist Party. “I genuinely struggle to think of anyone else who would stand to gain from this,” Mr. Currie said of the fake Twitter accounts.”
Hacker Attacks on the Dalai Lama's Website
The Dalai Lama has said that hackers have hacked into his computers and those of the Tibetan exile community and accessed e-mail and information, in one case getting information about a request for an Indian visa, with the Chinese government contacting an Indian embassy and telling them not to grant the visa. In other cases hackers have gained access to e-mails between exile offices just a few kilometers apart in Dharamsala.
The Dalai Lama has said he is not sure who the hackers are but is sure the stolen information finds its way to the Chinese government, A Canadian research group called the Information Warfare Monitors which looks into the matter said mainland hackers they have researched tend to be very nationalistic and “place as much importance on sovereignty [over Tibet] as Beijing does.”
In 2013, the prominent computer security firm Kaspersky Lab warned that the Dalai Lama's Chinese-language website that it had been hacked and was infecting visitors' computers with viruses that may allow hackers spy on users’ computers in what seemed to be an effort to spy on human rights activists who frequently visited the site. Kaspersky Lab researcher Kurt Baumgartner told Reuters that he is advising web surfers to stay away from the Chinese-language site of the Central Tibetan Administration, or CTA, until the organization fixes the bug. He described the attack on his company's blog: bit.ly/16LuBoP. [Source: Jim Finkle, Reuters, Aug 12, 2013]
Reuters reported: “Technical evidence suggests the group behind the campaign was also responsible for previous breaches on that site as well as attacks on groups that focus on human rights in Asia, Baumgartner said. Those breaches involved a two-stage attack technique known as "water holing," where hackers first infect a site that is frequently visited by people whose computers they want to control. That compromised site automatically seeks to infect the PCs of all visitors, downloading malicious software that the hackers can use to take control of their computers.
Hacker Attacks on the Tibetan Government in Exile Website
Computers of the Tibetan Government in Exile and its support groups around the world have been attacked by a Chinese-made virus that some believe was sent an okay from Beijing. One monk in Dharmsala is reported to have watched Outlook Express open by itself and send an e-mail off with a document attached - was a pressing issue in itself, and enough to justify the extensive investigation.In 2008, the large-scale cyber spying operation Ghostnet managed to extract emails and other data from the CTA. Ghostnet also affected other Tibet-related organizations, as well as embassies and government organizations across the world.
PaoPao reported: “When Lobsang Sangay reached his office, on September 16, 2011, a few weeks after he became Tibet’s new political leader, he found his whole office “in a very bad mood.” The atmosphere was chaotic and panicked, he remembers: “People were running from computer to computer.” Just a A top-secret memo about an upcoming visit to the US had somehow been obtained from the government’s computers, and leaked to the public domain. “Everything was supposed to be very confidential, and the memo was only meant for three people in Washington DC,” Lobsang Sangay says.[Source: pao-pao.net, November 5, 2014]
In 2012, a Chinese cyber attack that infiltrated at least at least 30 computer systems of Tibetan advocacy groups for over ten months. In 2013, the CTA’s website Tibet.net was compromised in a so-called watering hole attack, which allows hackers to spy and subsequently attack website visitors. Greg Walton, an internet security researcher at Oxford University, is concerned at the growing number of these watering hole attacks. When they are combined with attacks that exploit software vulnerabilities, he argues that “there is essentially no defense for the end user, and no amount of awareness or training will mitigate the threat.”
“A week prior to a scheduled interview with Time magazine’s editor Hanna Beech in Dharamsala, Lobsang Sangay, Tibet’s leader in exile, received an email from her. “She sent me the ten questions she would ask me. I found that very generous, journalists sending me questions ahead of time!” Sangay was about to download the attachment – but then he paused. “I grew a bit suspicious, so I decided to write back to her to ask if it was really her.” Beech said it wasn’t. The attack was sophisticated, but not uncommon, Sangay says. “We get that on a daily basis, literally; some Tibetan support group or someone from our office sends an email that will contain a virus.”
Uncovering Cyber Attacks in Tibet
In 2008, at the request of the Office of the Dalai Lama, Citizen Lab, a groups based at the University of Toronto, checked the computers of the Tibetan government in exile offices in Dharmsala in India and in various European cities to determine if they were infected with malware. During an investigation at the Dalai Lama's private office, Citizen Lab investigator Greg Walton observed as documents were being pilfered from the computer network, including a file containing thousands of e-mail addresses and another detailing the negotiating position of the spiritual leader's envoy. The investigation found that a group dubbed Shadow Network was able to obtain data taken by the attackers, including some 1,500 letters sent from the Dalai Lama's office between January and November in 2009. While the report said many of the letters did not contain sensitive information, it added that they allowed the attackers to collect information on anyone contacting the exiled spiritual leader's office. [Source: Peter Lee, Asia Times, April 8, 2009]
Walton collected reams of suspicious code. By plugging a likely bit into Google, he was able to locate the server that the malware was communicating with. He lured the server into establishing communication with a “honeypot” - a computer set up to document and trace cyber-intrusions - and finally penetrated it. Walton discovered three other servers supporting the malware, and obtained a list of almost 1,300 computers - many located in the offices of emigre Tibetan government and NGOs around the world, but also in numerous Taiwanese, European and Asian governmental offices - from which they were collecting information.
The operation, which the investigators named “GhostNet”, used a Trojan hidden in e-mail attachments to compromise a computer's security and download a piece of malware called gh0st RAT (RAT standing for Remote Access Tool). Gh0st RAT allowed a remote operator both to examine files on the computer and to upload them to a gh0st RAT server. Keystrokes could also be logged - a key hacking tool for acquiring passwords - and, purportedly, the computer's microphones and webcam could be activated and the audio and video sent to the gh0st RAT server.
According to researchers from the Infowar Monitor (IWM) at the University of Toronto ShadowNet was employed to form of “cyber espionage 2.0”. The IWM researchers were able to establish that the hackers worked from within China, but they have been hesitant to link these hackers to the Chinese government due to a lack of direct evidence. However, an American cable released by Wikileaks describes a “sensitive report” that was able to establish a connection between the attackers’ location and the Chinese army. [Source: pao-pao.net, November 5, 2014]
Image Sources: Purdue University, Cosmic Harmony, the film Kundun
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2022