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Tibet: A Tough Story to Cover

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This weekend, unrest began spreading beyond Tibet into the provinces on its border. But finding out exactly what's happening there is proving more and more difficult, as NPR's Louisa Lim reports.

LOUISA LIM: I'll come clean at the outset. This is a story of failure, frustration, and fatigue. With violence breaking out in Lhasa on Friday after five days of protests, the big dilemma was how to cover the news. Going to Tibet itself was out of the question. A special permit is needed even in normal circumstances.

Reports have begun to trickle out of protests elsewhere, including in Xiahe in Gansu province where thousands of monks from Labrang Monastery were marching through the streets. But Saturday, I was on a plane to Gansu. So were many other foreign journalists, rushing in the absence of solid information to see what we could find out. Everyone knew it would be a matter of time before the authorities betrayed their promise to give the overseas media complete freedom to report in China in this the Olympic year. And sure enough, police were stationed at each toll booth and were doing extra spot checks along the way.

I managed to get within 20 kilometers of the monastery. Then a roadblock staffed by about eight policemen checking IDs and searching trucks. Foreigners were being turned back for our own safety, I was told, the entire region is now closed to outsiders. Nonetheless, some of my colleagues did reach Xiahe and elsewhere to report on this - the biggest challenge to Chinese rule in the region for decades. They saw lines of moving clad monks marching, riot police in body armor, tear gas being fired, even gunshots as civilians cowered. They heard of beatings and detentions. At least two dozen colleagues shared my fate and were forced to leave Tibetan areas. But the policing is internal as well as external. People are literally muzzled by fear. Even Westerners working in Lhasa can't talk, fearing phone taps and knowing future projects and cooperation could be jeopardized.

For local Tibetans, there's a lot more at stake. Two young boys I spoke to muttered under their breath, there's been a lot of trouble, we can't say anything else. Self-censorship is common, too. Even voicing certain thoughts could be classed as a count to revolutionary offense. That was made clear to me by one young Tibetan I met in a pool hall in Lhasa several years ago. He put his hand on his chest saying, there were things in my heart I cannot say. I didn't ask him if he was referring to the Dalai Lama. It wouldn't have been fair.

During this trip, I also saw how ordinary people are forced to police each other. After I was turned back, my hapless drivers were given responsibility for taking me to the airport. It was made clear that if they didn't, they would suffer the consequences. And just to be sure, we were escorted by a police car for the first 60 miles and then tailed for 200 miles by a black sedan.

My own insignificant experience is part of a bigger picture. A sign the authorities are deploying all their resources to ensure an information blackout. It's mind boggling that in this age of the shrinking world, China's locking down an area roughly the size of Western Europe, closing it off from the outside, but that's exactly what's happening.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is NPR, National Public Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Beijing Correspondent Louisa Lim is currently attending the University of Michigan as a Knight-Wallace Fellow. She will return to her regular role in 2014.