The "China Quake?"

The Western mainstream media have been calling the disastrous earthquake which jolted Tibet on April 14 the "China quake," sending a misleading impression to the world that the earthquake occurred in Mainland China rather than in Tibet.

"Cultural tensions hinder China quake relief," says the Associated Press in an April 18 dispatch from Kyiku, with no hint of irony. The story however goes on to point out that it was mainly Tibetan monks who led the rescue efforts rather than the helpers sent in from Beijing.

Earlier on April 14, a story by MSNBC made an effort to clarify, quoting China's official Xinhua News Agency, which emphasized that the "Chinese prefecture of Yushu" is "part of what is known as the "Roof of the World."'

The writers did not even want to go so far as to mention the word "Tibet."

While CNN may not be the model of journalism, it was slightly more judicious on this count. The network often referred to Kyiku as the "Tibetan region of China" and sometimes the "Tibetan province of China," even as its headline on an April 20 story announced: "China holds a day of mourning for quake victims." If one were to go by the headline alone, Tibet becomes invisible.

The fact that more than 90 percent of the residents in Kyikudo are Tibetans and that the town and its vicinity are home to several of the major Tibetan monasteries dating back several centuries, are pretty much lost on the journalists. To use just one example, Thrangu Monastery, which had been the official headquarters of the Thrangu Rinpoche – current head tutor of the Seventeenth Karmapa, now based in Dharamsala -- has reportedly suffered massive losses. One of his monasteries has collapsed and a few dozen monks at the monastery have reportedly died.

Sources in the exile Tibetan community believe that the Chinese government had been suppressing the figures (Asia Sentinel, April 20, 2010). While the official figures put the death toll at just above 1,000, the unofficial sources say the casualty level is far higher. Some are putting the figure as high as 10,000.

While the Western mainstream media reported that China is doing its best to send rescue efforts, little is written whether their efforts are effective at all. Few question whether the rescuers sent in from Beijing are capable of operating in the harsh weather conditions of Tibet. Reports have also emerged about the tension between the monks and the rescuers.

Yet Beijing is not so easily palatable to Western relief efforts because it considers "Tibet" its "internal affair" and relying on the West in times of crisis is seen as tarring its image of an economic giant capable of rising up to its domestic challenges, be they man-made or natural.

As the Western media chatter away calling the quake the great "Chinese quake," there is little reporting on the NGOs or foreign teams flying into Tibet and of local Tibetans who, as reports show, are forced to dig away for survivors with their bare hands. This offers a jarring contrast to the recent quakes in both Haiti and Chile when the NGOs, the United States and the United Nations joined forces to send in rescue and medical teams within hours of the quake.

The mainstream media gave much space to cover, rather movingly, the images of the two Chinese leaders, Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao, visiting the quake zones. They announced that Chinese government would leave no stone unturned in rebuilding what has been destroyed by the deadly earthquake. Chinese President Hu even cut short his Latin American trip to return to China in the wake of the disaster, great public relations for Beijing.

True, Tibetans are grateful to the Chinese government for its assistance but the Western media needs to be accurate in its description and aggressive in its coverage of the rescue efforts. But this is exactly the time when the Western media needs to fulfill its fundamental role as a watchdog, made all the more important by the ubiquity of the China's state-sponsored media.

While it seems media semantics are unimportant in times of such a catastrophe, it needs to be pointed out that the callous and inaccurate description often creates a false sense of the situation on the ground. The mainstream press, as Edward Said pointed out with regards to the Western media's coverage of the Islamic world, not only describes reality but defines it.

Tsering Namjyal is a Tibetan journalist now based in the United States.