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VOA Film Explores Self-Immolations in Tibet; Touches on the Role Media Plays

[ 0 ] June 7, 2013 |

In a new film, Fire in the Land of Snow, Voice of America incorporates citizen journalism to explore the root causes of the recent wave of self-immolations in Tibet…

Tibet filmSince 2009, at least 118 Tibetans are known to have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese policy in Tibet.

A new film produced by Voice of America explores the root causes of the self-immolations, giving historical background on China’s self-described “peaceful liberation” of Tibet and its on-again/off-again crackdowns on political and religious freedom throughout the last 60 years.

The film suggests that the recent wave of self-immolations, which have spread from a single monastery to the lay population, may be the result of Tibetans sensing that they have few other options — peaceful protests lead to beatings, jailings, and potentially death.

Ironically, Chinese crackdowns after early self-immolations may have only served to spread the gruesome form of protest.

The film features several graphic scenes, captured by passersby on mobile phones and smuggled out of the country at significant risk to themselves. It’s another example of how citizen journalism can be a game-changer for stories that would otherwise disappear in repressive media environments such as China.

Chinese media has reacted by pointing the finger directly at VOA on at least four different occasions, according to Bill Baum, Director, East Asia & Pacific Division for Voice of America. They’ve gone so far as to promote conspiracy theories suggesting that in order to have video of the events, VOA must have known about them in advance.

Losang Gyatso, VOA Tibetan Service Chief speaks at the film's premiere.

Losang Gyatso, VOA Tibetan Service Chief speaks at the film’s premiere.

In one scene, Chinese media interviews a surviving protester who suggests that VOANews.comwas treating other self-immolators as “heroes,” and this was reason he set himself on fire. While Chinese media used that interview to distract from the root cause of the self-immolations, it does point out the potential for media coverage to feed copycat suicide, sometimes called the Werther Effect.

VOA Director David Ensor has previously dismissed Chinese charges of VOA involvement as nonsense. “This documentary provides a sobering and comprehensive look at the reasons driving people to take their own lives in such a painful and dramatic way,” he said. “By broadcasting this film and streaming it online, we are also giving audiences in Tibet and China access to information they simply cannot get on domestic media.”

VOA Tibetan Service Chief Losang Gyatso, who narrated the film, adds, “Chinese state media have characterized the people involved in these self-immolations as outcasts and delinquents. What we found, when we took an honest and balanced look at the issue, was that these people were very community-minded and cared deeply about what was happening in Tibet.”

A short trailer for Fire in the Land of Snow

The full, hour-long film, Fire in the Land of Snow: Self-Immolations in Tibet

VOA is now broadcasting the film around the world in Tibetan, Mandarin and English on direct-to-home satellite, affiliate stations, and VOA websites. In addition, the documentary is available on social media platforms, including YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and a podcast in the iTunes store.

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Category: Asia News, East Asia News, International Broadcasting News, Think Pieces

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