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CHINA: Radio Keeps Tibetans Tuned In

SHANGHAI, China, Feb 16 2012 (IPS) - No road leads to Motuo County. There is no post office or newspaper. But, for the 10,000 residents of one of the planet’s remotest corners, a local radio station serves as the vital link to the outside world.

The Motuo County Radio Station (MCRS), broadcasting daily on FM 106.0 megahertz in the Tibetan language, is one way that the residents of China’s “island on the plateau”, mostly Monpa or Lhoba ethnic minorities learn of events outside the isolated county.

“It’s one of the main ways that we keep in contact with the outside world and know what is happening to the rest of China,” says Ai an ethnic Tibetan who works as a technician at the station.

“MCRS is the main channel for those who can’t speak Mandarin to learn what is going on outside the county,” Ai adds, asking that only his family name be used.

Founded in 1982, MCRS, which is government-approved, is one of a handful of localised radio stations providing China’s minorities with news and entertainment in their native languages. Presently, local state-run stations serve five out of 46 ethnic minorities with a population over 10,000.

Located on the southeast corner of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), Motuo – which means “hidden and mysterious lotus” in Tibetan – is cut off for approximately half the year by ice and snow.

Apart from translating news and entertainment shows from China’s national stations (China National Radio, China Radio International and China Central Television), MCRS produces news and information programmes that directly affect the largely rural Motuo community.

“As it’s so remote, the radio programmes help to fill knowledge gaps for local farmers,” says Ai.

Agriculture is Motuo’s mainstay. “The agriculture programmes are mainly instructive, for instance teaching the farmers how to fix their machinery. They are eager for higher levels of technical skill,” says Ai.

For farmers working on the region’s isolated mountains, the station provides daily entertainment, radios being both cheap and portable.

Though it has been running for 20 years (with government funding), keeping the station alive is a challenge. “The conditions in which our station runs are poor… we have five to six staff and only some received training from outside provinces,” says Gao Jianling, director of MCRS.

Because of the remote location of Motuo, other media such as newspapers are too expensive to produce and distribute. “But conditions still don’t permit us to set up our own programmes,” says Gao.

As with all national media in China, the radio waves are controlled by the powerful Communist Party of China.

Failure to adhere to the rules set out by the watchdog State Administration of Radio, Film and Television – which bans discussions on democracy, the Dalai Lama, Taiwanese independence and references to the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 – invites heavy punishment.

In 2008, an ethnic Uyghur woman, Mehbube Ablesh, 29, was removed from her post at Xinjiang People’s Radio Station and detained for apparently criticising the local government.

According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), which is supported by the United States government and broadcasts news to nine Asian countries with restricted media, Mehbube has not been heard of since.

Despite the censorship, radio is being utilised by news organisations and activist groups to deliver news to oppressed communities in China.

Spaces such as RFA and – which are blocked in China but are accessible via a proxy server – host news bulletins in the Tibetan and Uyghur languages.

The East Turkestan Independence Movement – a separatist group advocating an autonomous East Turkestan, currently incorporated into Xinjiang province – hosts two radio stations on their (also blocked) website.

“(Tibetans do not) get news stories of events happening in other parts of Tibet that they simply didn’t know about, until they hear from us,” Dan Southerland, executive editor at RFA, tells IPS over phone from the U.S.

RFA broadcasts in three Tibetan dialects, Uke, Amdo and Kham, and while they cannot be sure how many listeners they have within the TAR, Southerland says the number is “significant”, with most listeners picking up broadcasts via satellite, despite the government’s efforts to block signals.

“We try to let people know what’s happening and try to get it accurate, which is very difficult,” says Southerland. “Our sources are quite often frightened, they talk to us for two minutes and then they hang up. A monk was arrested simply for telling people he was listening to RFA.”

“The thing that’s missing in coverage by state media,” says Southerland, “is that you can’t talk about Tibetan culture without talking about Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama.

“It’s a campaign (by the Chinese government); monks are being forced to renounce him. We report on the Dalai Lama. When he travels, we try to be there. Listeners tell us: give us more of the Dalai Lama, we want to hear his voice. It’s very touching.”

The Internet is one space that groups marginalised by mainstream Chinese culture are beginning to broadcast over. “Our radio station acted like a think tank for our audience,” says Xiaodai, an ethnic Uyghur from Ürümqi, Xinjiang province, requesting that only his first name be used.

In 2008, his non-government organisation founded the Colourful Xinjiang Gay Love Broadcast (CXGLB) – without seeking government approval – in response to the conservatism of state-run media.

Though CXGLB relied heavily on volunteers, it broadcast daily gay-themed programmes between 10-11pm online for nearly a year. But with the outbreak of rioting in Xinjiang in July 2009, a spooked Beijing cut off the region’s access to the Internet, and the station folded up.

(With additional research by Qiu Cheng)

*This story was produced with the support of UNESCO

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