VOA Rejects China’s Claims It Secretly Encourages Tibetan Protest Suicides

By Patrick Goodenough | February 8, 2013 | 4:23 AM EST

The Tibetan flag flies during a 2008 protest in Paris, France, linked to the Beijing Olympic Games. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

(CNSNews.com) – The Voice of America has dismissed as “totally absurd” suggestions in Chinese state media that the broadcaster uses secret codes to encourage people in Tibet to set themselves on fire to protest Chinese policies in their homeland.

“We do report these tragic stories; we do not encourage these self-immolations, that is wrong,” VOA director David Ensor said Thursday.

VOA, which has Chinese and Tibetan-language services, says it has given extensive news coverage to the nearly 100 cases of Tibetans who have “self-immolated” in recent years.

A documentary aired Wednesday by China Central Television (CCTV), the state television network, examined the wave of protest suicide, which a police official investigating the phenomenon was blamed directly on the Tibetan government-in-exile and its leader, the Dalai Lama.

Asked by a CCTV interviewer why he had set himself alight, a young man in a hospital bed – portrayed as having survived the ordeal – replied, “I did it after watching Voice of America. I saw the photographs of self-immolators being commemorated. They were treated like heroes.”

(The interviewer and interviewee spoke in Chinese, but CCTV ran English subtitles.)

The narrator then said, in English, “Western media, like Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, have been very useful to the Dalai clique” – Beijing’s term for the exiled Tibetan movement and its reviled leader.

“Since the 1990s they have been increasing their Tibetan-language output. Apart from regular Tibetan-language programs Voice of America, at the request of the Dalai clique, broadcasts secret instructions in code to their contacts in China.”

The documentary did not elaborate on the “secret instructions” but the implication in the documentary was that they included incitement to self-immolate.

Ensor called the secret code claim “one of the more amazing parts of the CCTV report. That suggestion is totally absurd.”

VOA said it was not contacted for a response to the allegations aired in the documentary.

Head of the VOA’s Tibetan service, Losang Gyatso, denied that news reports were influenced by the Dalai Lama or the Tibetan government-in-exile, and said the reports often include the views of Chinese officials.

VOA is funded by the federal government through the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

“Obviously VOA has made clear that they were not involved, and we support VOA in that statement,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in response to queries about the Chinese allegations.

Other reports published this week by state media, including China Daily and the Xinhua news agency, also linked VOA to the self-immolation issue.

According to the International Campaign for Tibet, 85 Tibetan men and 14 women are confirmed as having set themselves on fire inside Tibet since Feb. 2009, all but one since March 2011. Most died as a result of their injuries. It says another five died in exile, in India and Nepal.

Xinhua reported Thursday that 70 people have been detained in a police crackdown on the protests.

It quoted Lyu Benqian, deputy police chief in Qinghai – a province bordering Tibet – as saying the police would “exert more efforts to thoroughly investigate the cases and seriously punish those who incite innocent people to commit self-immolation.”

“The Dalai Lama clique masterminded and incited the self-immolations,” the report cited Lyu as saying.

Communist China occupied Tibet in 1951 and crushed an armed uprising in 1959. The Dalai Lama and tens of thousands of Tibetans then fled into exile. In 1965, China declared the area an “autonomous region” and says the ensuing decades have seen the transformation of “a grim and backward feudal” society into a modern one.

Opponents of Chinese control assert that Tibetan culture has been threatened and its religion suppressed.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow