Tuesday, July 15

A tale of three journalists in Tibet: the lucky James Miles, the intrepid Chen Lin, and a lucky mystery man (UPDATED 8/04)

This entry was revised July 16. See end of post for 8/04 letter from James Miles.

Nitin at India's Acorn blog alerted me that in a July 10 report for The Economist James Miles did a little backtracking about his perception of how events went down in Lhasa when riots broke out there on March 14.
[...] Your correspondent, who happened to be the only foreign journalist in Lhasa at the time, reported in March that the rioting began to spread along the city’s main thoroughfare, Beijing Road, in the early afternoon, “a short while” after a clash between monks and security officials outside Ramoche temple some 200 metres up a side street.

But in fact the eruption of citywide rioting was slower than this suggested. Witnesses speak of the unrest outside Ramoche temple starting before 11.30am, well before your correspondent arrived at Beijing Road around 1.30pm and saw the rioting fan out through the narrow alleys of Lhasa’s old Tibetan quarter.

Until just before then the unrest, including some stone-throwing by Tibetans at police, was confined to a small area. Oddly, however, your correspondent was nearby in a government car at around 12.30pm and saw no sign of beefed-up security. [...]
Miles also proffers various possibilities about why the Chinese Communist Party authorities in Tibet allowed the riots of that day to proceed virtually unhampered by official intervention. He even brings himself to consider the possibility that "... some officials actually wanted the violence to escalate, as a pretext to impose blanket security on the city long before the Olympics."

Ah yes, I well remember the lucky Mr Miles of the lucky Economist magazine. As he told CNN on March 20, the day after he left Tibet:
I've been a journalist in China now for 15 years altogether. This is the first time that I've ever got official approval to go to Tibet.
Now that's luck.

And how lucky was it for the CCP that the lucky Mr Miles was granted the only official permission for a foreign journalist to be in Lhasa at just the time, as luck would have it, riots broke out there?

And so it came to pass that the lucky Mr Miles became "king of the journalists," as he filed report after report from Lhasa about the rioting and the aftermath -- reports that shaped the outside world's view of what was happening in the city; reports that China's official press touted as examples of the savagery of the Tibetans.

And how lucky was it for China's President Hu Jintao, remembered by Tibetans from his days as Tibet's boss as "the Butcher of Lhasa," that the lucky Mr Miles was there on scene, able to give the world accounts of the attacks by Tibetans on Han and Hui Chinese?

Granted, things backfired a bit when world opinion outside China tended to sympathize with the Tibetans but this is a story about luck, not politics.

Enter an unlucky but very determined reporter for Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV by the name of Chen Lin. Chen did not have official permission to be in Lhasa but despite that great handicap she exerted herself to investigate and document the chaotic situation in Lhasa in the wake of the riots.

Chen also blogged about her experiences in Lhasa. ESWN published English translations of her journal for the days March 16, 17, and 19.

In one of her March 19 entries Chen wrote about her encounter with a foreign journalist:
We could not stay hungry and we kept looking until we found a restaurant opened for business. It was a large restaurant with more than two dozen service workers and cooks. But we were the only two customers.

When we returned to the hotel, we saw a foreigner. I remembered that none of the foreigners that I saw today and yesterday agreed to be interviewed. I raced up to this one, but I found out that he was also a reporter.

The difference was that he received permission from the Lhasa Foreign Relations Department to enter Tibet to gather news on March 10. He was due to leave the next day. He was pleasantly surprised that the authorities permitted him to stay during this period to gather news.

On the afternoon of March 14, he was scheduled to interview the vice-chairman of the Tibetan Autonomous Rule Region. After the news came that there was a disturbance, the Foreign Relations Department agreed with his request to cancel the scheduled meeting and he rushed over to the scene.

He said that the rioters perpetrated violence right in front of him, although it was not as bad as in other areas. The mobsters used rocks to throw at bicyclists and that was already scary enough.

He was glad that he was a foreigner whom the rioters took to be on their side. They even smiled at him and then continued to wrought violence. He firmly believed that this was a racial conflict.

When I told him that Tibetans had been injured and even burned to death, he looked lost and said, "WHY?"

Yes, I also wanted to know. WHY?
As you see, Chen did not name the lucky foreign journalist. However, the sharp-eyed blogger at ESWN snapped up Chen's entry and posted it in a compilation of all the reports filed by James Miles from Lhasa, along with other reports related to Miles's dispatches.

(Scroll to near the end of the ESWN compilation for Chen Lin's conversation with the mystery journalist.)

By placing Chen's interview with all those reports, ESWN seemed to have made a great find by pegging the mystery journalist as Miles.

At first glance it seems that ESWN was right. Miles was the only foreign journalist with official permission to be in Tibet at the time. And other aspects of the conversation point to Miles:

The comment about the riots being racially motivated reflected an opinion Miles expressed in one of his dispatches.

And the reference to violence against bicyclists points to an incident in which Miles stopped Tibetan rioters from stoning a Chinese bicyclist.

Indeed, when I asked another blogger, who had also been closely following Miles's dispatches, to check the Chinese-language version of the ESWN translation, he told me that the original text also did not name the journalist, but that the mystery man must have been Miles.

The problem is that the mystery journalist's account of his entry date and official permission differs from the one given by James Miles.

From the March 20 CNN interview with Miles:
CNN: When you were told to leave [Lhasa], what were you told?

Miles: Well I had an 8-day permit to be in Lhasa. That permit began two days before the rioting, on March 12, and was due to run out on March 19. [...]
Counting on our fingers and toes, we know that March 12 is two days after March 10. And Miles implies that he entered Tibet with an 8-day permit rather than receiving an extended permit after he arrived.

Is the solution to the mystery that the journalist was indeed Miles, but Chen simply got wrong what Miles told her?

She would have needed to get a lot wrong -- not just the entry date but the entire explanation. And she is reporter, and one who was surely very keenly interested in learning how a foreign reporter had the great luck to obtain official permission to be in Lhasa around that time.

Is it possible that the mystery journalist was indeed Miles but that he didn't wish to reveal the correct details of his situation to a stranger? Yes that's possible.

It's also possible that Miles simplified his explanation for CNN. If the situation was actually the one recounted to Chen, that could mean Miles entered Tibet with a two-day permission (March 10-11), and was notified on the 11th that the permit would be extended to eight days beginning on March 12.

That would be the way to make both explanations jibe, if the mystery journalist was indeed James Miles.

Here we come to a snag. To return to Miles's reply to the CNN interviewer:
Well I had an 8-day permit to be in Lhasa. That permit began two days before the rioting, on March 12, and was due to run out on March 19. My official schedule was basically abandoned after a couple days of this. Many of the places on my official itinerary turned out to be hotspots in the middle of this unrest. [...]
If we are speculating that there was an original permit issued for March 10 and 11, then Miles's original official itinerary would have only covered March 10 and 11.

Granted, an expanded itinerary could have been thrown together on March 11 to cover the days for March 12-19, although generally these things take several days to work out.

More to the point, by March 10 it was clear to the authorities that Lhasa was a tinderbox -- a point that Miles brings up in his July 10 piece for The Economist:
... the protests at Lhasa’s monasteries on March 10th and 11th were the biggest in the city since 1989 and provided ample warning of bigger trouble ahead. [...]
Why yes indeed; it was starkly obvious to the authorities even before March 10th, and to anyone with half a brain, that the demonstrations planned for the 10th would be large. That is exactly why the authorities used draconian means to deal with March 10 demonstrations -- a ploy they knew would lead to unrest.

Yet if we are to believe the mystery journalist's account to Chen Lin, then, in the midst of this gathering storm, on the 11th, someone in Lhasa officialdom rang him up and exclaimed, 'Lucky you! We've decided to extend your permit for eight days! As a bonus we'll throw together a very extensive new itinerary for you, just so you won't get bored hanging out.'

Of course there is another way to attempt to uncover the identity of the lucky mystery journalist, and that would be to write James Miles and ask whether he was indeed the person Chen described.

You're welcome to try. As to why I don't write him, let me put it this way: I am fully intent on being as fair to James Miles as he was to his readers while he reported on the unrest in Lhasa.

I'll go only this far toward meeting him: he's welcome to write me with an explanation, which I will publish along with my reply.

As for writing Chen Lin for clarification -- obviously she had her reasons for not naming the mystery journalist. However, if anyone wants to write and ask her to cough up a name, I would be glad to publish her reply.

Chen Lin made honest efforts to do her job as a reporter while in Lhasa and yet she was facing insurmountable obstacles. As she recounts in one of the March 19 entries that ESWN translated:
We are "illegal" because our presence did not fit the wishes of the local authorities. On the evening of March 18, we received a notice from our hotel that unless we get the proper papers, we will be reported and then likely asked to depart.

I cannot go to the authorities to request interviews, I cannot go to the hospitals where the wounded people are being treated and I cannot go to the aid stations where the homeless are being sheltered.
James Miles, on the other hand, was not "illegal." He was even able to ride around Lhasa in an official car. Yet there is nothing in his March reports from Lhasa or his subsequent accounts to suggest that he did even the basic groundwork that Chen covered or attempted, and which any professional reporter worth the title would have done.

Whenever he did leave his hotel he simply wandered around, in the manner of a confused tourist.

His reporting boiled down to describing whatever incidents he wandered into, and he embellished these with his impressions of what was going on.

There was no method at all to his reporting, which put it in the diary category of journalism.

This, despite his assertion that the authorities gave him the virtual run of Lhasa during and after the riots. Yet if he made an attempt to visit hospitals and aid stations and interview a list of officials in Lhasa about the riots and aftermath, there is no mention of this in his reports.

If he was rebuffed in his attempts, then, with the world hanging on his every published word from Tibet, he did not explain that.

If he feared he would be immediately ejected from Tibet if he tried to get answers, he did not mention that to his readers, either.

So we are left with questions, many questions, about what really happened in Tibet on March 14.

And we are left with questions for Mr Miles and The Economist. Did the magazine pick the date they wanted Miles, based in Beijing, to enter Tibet?

Or had they been trying unsuccessfully for months or even years to receive official permission to enter Tibet, and were suddenly and inexplicably rewarded with a permit at a seemingly inopportune time? (The most senior officials in Tibet were at a conference in Beijing at the time of Miles's visit.)

Finally, four months after Chen Lin's account of her conversation with another lucky foreign journalist who found himself with official permission to be in Lhasa during the riots, we are still waiting for that mystery journalist to appear and identify himself.

And to explain, if he can, why he thinks that Tibet's authorities decided on March 11 to offer him an unasked-for extended stay in Lhasa.
8/04 Update, 11:30 PM ET
James Miles responds:

"I read your blog entry on my reporting on Tibet. It might help your investigation to know that my permit for reporting in Tibet was valid from March 12th to 19th. Accordingly I arrived in Lhasa on the 12th by train from Qinghai and left by plane on March 19th. During my stay I asked for an extension of my permit. This was denied. If you have any further questions, do not hesitate to ask.

James Miles
China Correspondent
The Economist"

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