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Chinese documentary alleges US broadcaster incites Tibetan self-immolations

Published at 12:40 a.m. ET: BEIJING – A controversial new documentary released by Chinese state broadcaster, CCTV, is alleging that the American government’s official broadcaster, Voice of America, is encouraging Tibetans to set themselves on fire.

The story comes as China braces itself for the 100th Tibetan self-immolation since 2009.

The 25-minute documentary, roughly translated as, “Outside Tibetan Separatist Cliques and the Southern Gansu self-immolations,” ran on the CCTV show, “Focus Today” and showed a Tibetan man in a hospital bed who allegedly attempted to self-immolate.

Seemingly prompted to explain why he had attempted to light himself on fire, the man says, “I did it after watching VOA, I saw the photographs of self-immolators being commemorated. They were treated like heroes.”

The documentary coincides with a story printed earlier this week in the English language government newspaper, China Daily, which also suggested that the American government broadcaster was influencing Tibetans’ decision to set themselves alight.

Citing the example of one 18-year old Tibetan named Sangdegye, who attempted to self-immolate last December, the China Daily noted that he “adored the self-immolators VOA reported on,” citing them as “heroes.” 

In addition to accusing VOA of inciting Tibetans to self-immolate, the CCTV piece also sensationally accuses the company of employing secret codes to send messages to people inside Tibet.

VOA Director David Ensor categorically denies the accusations.

In a press release issued by Voice of America on Wednesday after the Chinese stories came out, Ensor called the documentary’s accusations “totally false” and called the self-immolations a sign of distress in Tibet. 

“We do report these tragic stories,” Ensor said from VOA’s headquarters in Washington D.C., “We do not encourage these self-immolations. That is wrong.”

Regarding allegations that the American broadcaster was transmitting secret coded messages to Tibetans, Ensor said, “That is one of the more amazing parts of the CCTV report.  That suggestion is totally absurd.”

Calls by NBC News to the VOA office in Beijing were referred back to their U.S. headquarters. VOA is asking that CCTV and the China Daily both retract their reports. 

Voice of America has been broadcasting internationally since 1942 and serves as the American government’s official means of communicating with foreign populations.  Generating approximately 1,500 hours of content each week in 43 languages, the network has sometimes run afoul of foreign governments.

Simmering tensions in Tibet
Over the years, Tibet has become an increasingly sensitive topic for China’s ruling Communist Party. Dramatic protests by hundreds of Tibetan monks in 2008 in the provincial capital, Lhasa, and ethnic Tibetan areas around China forced Beijing to crackdown on what they call “separatist activities” incited by a “Dalai Lama clique.”

Since then, a heavy military presence has installed itself in Tibetan towns and temples and foreign travel to the restive region has been curtailed. Foreign journalists have been unable to travel to Tibet except by invitation by the Foreign Ministry.

A mass migration of ethnic Han Chinese to Tibetan areas for economic opportunities has many Tibet-watchers accusing China of eroding Tibetan culture and placing their economic benefits over those of poorer ethnic Tibetans.

Visits to Tibetan regions outside of Tibet – forbidden now without permission from the government – by foreign media have shown similar rising tensions among ethnic Tibetans.

The phenomenon of Tibetans self-immolating has been extensively covered by foreign press here in China, but is largely ignored by domestic media. A high-profile court case last week though made big news in local press as a Tibetan monk and his nephew were found guilty of “intentional suicide” and sentenced to a suspended death sentence with two year reprieve and 10-years in prison respectively.

The pair was accused of inciting eight Tibetans to self-immolate, three of whom later died.