Global events often prompt news media to cover stories in a manner relative to their local interests. However, coverage of such events is complicated when media ownership must serve multiple interests.
On March 10th, 2008, Tibetan Buddhist monks from different monasteries in Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China, staged a series of protests against the Chinese Government. The protests followed the 49th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising of 1959, which resulted in the exile of the Dalai Lama in India.
As days went by and civilians joined the monks, the demonstrations turned increasingly violent. The protests spread to other cities of eastern China, such as Batang, Luhuo, Ganzi and Seda, as well as to other countries.
“Tibetan government Chairman Qiangba Puncog denounced the ‘plot of the separatists,’” the BBC reported on March 15th, quoting the AFP news agency. In the same article, the British channel said that “in a statement quoted by the state-run news agency Xinhua, the Tibetan government urged ‘the lawbreakers to give themselves in by Monday midnight’ and promised that ‘leniency would be given to those who surrender.’”
Al Jazeera reported that “cars burned, shops were looted and crowds of ethnic Tibetans clashed with police and soldiers.” The broadcaster also added: “the independence protests were the fiercest in the region in two decades. The protests which grew from peaceful demonstrations led by monks early in the week have turned violent.”
During the Tibetan crisis, the press had its own issues in dealing with conflicting information. For example, the number of casualties reported by the Chinese authorities and the Tibetan government in exile were significantly different. “Chinese authorities said the final death toll was 13 people while Tibetan exile groups put the figure at more than 80,” wrote Dan Kean on March 19th at efluxmedia.com.
News editors around the world were challenged by the question: “how should I tell this story?” When global media monitored the situation, competing dialogues emerged.
In this case, some media used sources from China expressed through authorities and Xinhua, the state news agency. Others, especially the international reporters in Beijing, tried to include the monks’ viewpoint to counterbalance the Chinese reports of the riots.
On March 21st, the state-owned Chinese channel CCTV9 broadcast a documentary about the conflict. “We’ll look back at the events to see how they have impacted the people in Tibet,” the presenter said.
These are quotes from the video: “In the handling of the incident, China’s public security and armed police have exerted the highest restraint. They did not use any deadly weapons, not even when their own lives were threatened. Some riot police were cornered and beaten, others were stoned. Armed police on duty outside the gate of the Ramoche Temple were surrounded and attacked by rioters, none of them fired on their attackers.” The following video is the first part of the documentary. The second part is similar in content.
(The video includes some aggressive images)
Other media, like the BBC, highlighted the fact that access to information was limited. “News coming out of Tibet is very restricted,” the presenter said, and the reporter from Beijing then explained how their signal was cut off the air every time they mentioned something about Tibet. (watch up to 2:10)
To introduce its report from Beijing, the presenter of the American broadcasting channel, CNN, said: “And soon the streets are filled with screams, with gunfire, with rioting, and so far the Chinese government has refused to allow CNN to even enter Tibet. Our John Vause brings us what he knows, he is in Beijing.”
According to CNN, some of the images that they showed were sent by students.
(Video includes some aggressive images)
The Arab news network, Al Jazeera, showed the damage in Lhasa’s streets on March 15th. A taxi driver was shown complaining about the demonstrators, and the reporter stated “cars burned, shops were looted and crowds of ethnic Tibetans clash with police and soldiers.” At this time Tibet’s chairman said “these events can be described as an organized and planned plot. We are very determined to denounce the separatists’ activity.”
The video also includes the testimony of a Dutch tourist about to leave the place who says, concerning the soldiers, “they came down on Tibetan people really hard.” (Watch up to 1:43).
(Video includes some aggressive images)
As the Tibet conflict shows, there is more than one way to tell the same story.
What are the main differences between the media’s coverage of this event? Do you think state-owned and privately-owned media covered it differently? Why?