Tibetan activist and exile Jamphel Yeshi, 27, runs through the streets
Tibetan activist and exile Jamphel Yeshi, 27, runs through the streets on fire in protest of the arrival of China's president, Hu Jintao. Jintao is visiting India this week to meet with the BRICS nations. Reuters

After seeing an unprecedented number of Tibetan self-immolations in 2012, China’s state-run CCTV released a documentary accusing the U.S. government-sponsored Voice of America of encouraging the desperate gestures by Tibetans protesting the Chinese government.

The CCTV program featured an interview with a man in a hospital identified as a Tibetan who survived an attempted self-immolation. During his interview, he said a VOA story on the self-immolations in the area prompted him to follow suit.

“I did it after watching VOA,” he told the interviewer. “I saw the photographs of self-immolators being commemorated. They were treated like heroes.”

Similarly, China Daily, a state-run newspaper, published an article expressing also suggesting the VOA was influencing the wave of self-immolations.

“Some foreign media later branded Tsekho a ‘Tibetan martyr’…Sangdegye used to watch Voice of America Tibetan-language programs, and said he adored the self-immolators VOA reported on, because they were like ‘heroes.’”

The VOA has since released its own report on the issue and has vehemently denied all suggestions from Chinese media that it does anything other than report the story.

VOA Director David Ensor was quoted in a VOA report calling the accusations “totally false,” saying the events in Tibet are tragic and a sign of distress that deserves coverage. “We report them, we certainly don’t encourage them,” he said.

According to a broadcast by VOA, CCTV’s documentary, which was also aired in English two days after its Chinese- language version aired Monday, suggested that VOA journalists were in communication with the Dalai Lama and communicating his words to the Tibetan people through their reports.

“Without citing any evidence, CCTV also accused VOA broadcast of using secret code to send instructions to people inside Tibet at the direction of the Dalai Lama,” the VOA report said.

Ensor went on to comment that the suggestion was “totally absurd.”

VOA’s Tibet Service chief, Lonsang Gyatso, also denied that the agency’s reports were influenced by the Dalai Lama or his exiled Tibetan government and said that in fact they frequently feature the views of Chinese officials.

“Our service, while funded by the U.S. government, is totally autonomous. We are not influenced by any outside agency, including the Dalai Lama’s office or the Tibetan government in exile,” Gyatso said.

This was not the first time the VOA has been accused of encouraging self-immolators. Following a 2008 protest in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, similar implications were made.

The VOA has reported extensively on the self-immolations in Tibet, which have reached record highs. According to the Global Post newspaper, an estimated 91 Tibetans have set themselves ablaze over the past 18 months in protest to China’s rule over Tibet. Many Tibetans blame China’s government for marginalizing the indigenous population and its customs by crusading against the religious beliefs of Tibetan Buddhism, as embodied by the Dalai Lama.