[Vietnam country report to SEAPA’s 2012 Press Freedom Report, Online media is the space to watch]
Another year of a roller-coaster ride awaits freedom of expression in Vietnam in 2012. At its 11th National Congress last January, the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) made national security top priority while adopting a resolute but cautious path towards economic reforms over the next five years.
Despite opening up to foreign investment and integrating the national economy with the rest of the world, Vietnam’s communist rulers remain worried about Western influences and ideology, which have become far more pervasive with the Internet revolution.
Especially uneasy with the way the social media-driven Arab Spring revolution across the Middle East inspired democracy movements on other continents in 2011, Vietnam’s government has tightened controls on the Internet including sophisticated cyber attacks on websites critical of the government.
Throughout 2011, the government imposed harsh penalties on journalists struggling against blanket state censorship, showing little tolerance towards free speech and critical media, especially when these challenged the one-party rule or exposed high-profile corruption cases.
Intensified crackdown on pro-democracy activists, journalists and bloggers
While Vietnamese enjoy more freedom of expression than they did a decade ago, the country’s media is among the most tightly controlled in the world. Apart from online dissidents and some online publications, all media is state-run with no editorial freedom. Yet, journalists have continued to write about human rights, corruption, and freedom of expression issues.
However, under Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, the government came down hard on both traditional and new media over the past year. In the run up to the 11th Party Congress in January 2011, stringent controls were imposed on pro-democracy activists, especially bloggers and journalists who were outspoken about political pluralism and corruption.
A new media decree issued on 6 January2011limited the media’s ability to report issues of corruption without fear of harsh fines or police reprisal. Decree No. 2, “Sanctions for Administrative Violations in Journalism and Publishing”, which went into effect on 25 February, strengthened several penalties already in place in the 1990 Press Law.
The decree grants authorities greater powers to penalize journalists, editors, and bloggers reporting on issues deemed sensitive to national security. The decree’s characteristically broad and vague provisions impose fines of up to 40 million Dong (USD 2,000) for contravention of the press law, which includes requirements to “provide honest domestic and international news in accordance with the interests of the country and the people.”
The power to determine precisely what those “interests” are, is conferred on several different branches of government, including the Ministry of Information and Communications, the police force and customs officials among others. This diffusion of responsibility and given competing interests of different government agencies, increases the likelihood of arbitrary and self-interested application of the law.
This hard-line stand on media freedom is linked to extensive media coverage of high profile corruption cases, in particular the mismanagement of ship-builderVinashin, the souring of Vietnam-China ties as well as government fears of an Arab Spring-style democracy movement.
A record number of independent journalists have been jailed over the past year, with at least 22 known bloggers, journalists and broadcasters behind bars.
In the latest instance, on 2 January this year, Mr. Nguyen Van Khuong, a well known journalist from the official Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper was arrested on the charge of bribing a traffic policeman in order to obtain evidence for his published articles on police corruption. This incident has highlighted the risks the Vietnamese media takes in uncovering information without breaking the law.
In August last year, French-Vietnamese professor and political blogger Pham Minh Hoangwas sentenced to three years imprisonment and an additional three years of house arrest for “activities aimed at overthrowing the government”. His blog discussed corruption, environmental degradation, and the government’s perceived failure to protect Vietnam’s territorial sovereignty from Chinese expansionism. He was also convicted of membership of the exiled pro-democracy party, Viet Tan. Pressure from the French government and the European Union has forced authorities to agree to convert Minh Hoang’s imprisonment into house arrest.
Cu Huy Ha Vu, a lawyer and human rights blogger, was not so lucky and the courts rejected his appeal in August against a seven-year jail sentence handed down in April for spreading anti-state propaganda. The case of Cu Huy Ha Vu, son of Cu Huy Can, one of the leaders of the Vietnamese revolution, had attracted international attention and an unprecedented level of popular support.
Also in April last year, Vi Duc Hoi, a former Party member-turned-democracy activist and blogger, was sentenced to five years imprisonment and three years of house arrest for “disseminating propaganda against the government”. His blog discussed land disputes between the government and citizens, and criticized the single-party state. A winner of the Hellman/Hammet award, his sentence had, however, been reduced from the original eight and five years, respectively, on appeal.
Then, in August 2011 independent online journalist Lu Van Baywas sentenced to four years in prison and three years of house arrest on the same charge after his articles criticizing the Vietnamese political system were published by several overseas websites.
Paulus Le Van Son, a blogger and journalist writing on social justice and blogger Nguyen Van Duyet and a Hanoi University student Nong Hung Anh were arrested in August last year, while journalists Dang Xuan Dieu and Ho Duc Hoa were arrested in July. All four are awaiting trial for charges of “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the government”.
The government is also disregarding the basic welfare and dignity of those it accuses. In July last year, 64-year-old dissident publication editor Nguyen Van Ly was sent back to prison to continue serving his eight-year sentence awarded in 2007, despite being on medical parole since March following multiple strokes and being diagnosed with a brain tumor.
Nguyen Van Hai, a pro-democracy blogger imprisoned since April 2008, is also reported to have been seriously injured while in jail. He was due to be released on 18 October 2010 but the government has neither offered any information on his circumstances nor allowed his family to see him in prison. A prison guard reportedly informed his wife that the prisoner had lost one of his arms.
The crackdown on freedom of expression is not limited to the online world. In October last year, three land rights activists were convicted of distributing ‘anti-government propaganda’. Arrested in April, Nguyen Ngoc Cuong was sentenced to seven years in jail, his son to two years, while his daughter-in-law received a suspended sentence. The three had campaigned on behalf of farmers in land disputes with local authorities and the charges against them included publishing ‘anti-regime’ interviews online.
In November last year, radio broadcasters Vu Duc Trung and Le Van Thanhwere sentenced to two and three years imprisonment, respectively, for broadcasting to China. The two are members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, banned in China but ostensibly legal in Vietnam.
Foreign media are effectively barred from covering controversial political issues in Vietnam, including the severe sentencing of pro-democracy activists and reporters. Dustin Roasa, a freelance reporter working for The Guardian, was detained upon his attempted return to the country late last year and deported the next day. Roasa had published an expose in January, highlighting the government crackdown on online critics. Two Vietnamese dissidents, Nguyen Thu Tram and Nguyen Ngoc Quang who were interviewed for the article were also hunted down by police and forced to flee the country.
The above cases show how dangerous and socially isolating it can be to become an independent journalist in Vietnam. Nguyen Ngoc Quang was attacked by men hired by the security police in September 2010, who knocked him to the ground and drove over him with a motorbike. He has already served a three-year jail sentence for dissent. Nguyen Thu Tram described regular interrogations by security police and how they had to cut themselves off from family – the price the government exacts for professional pursuit of truth.
Going slow on probing state corruption after 11th Party Congress
Over the last five years, coverage of state corruption by the media, which was at one time encouraged by the government as Vietnam was preparing to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO), has declined due to fear of prosecution and intimidation.
Media scrutiny of government economic decisions, crucial in a single-party ruled state, is hampered by the lack of guarantee of media freedom and safe working conditions, with journalists subject to increased threats and intimidation for trying to cover corruption issues. Reporting of corruption among higher-ranked government officials is now taboo. An initial study commissioned by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as part of the Donor Roundtable Conference on Anti-Corruption in Vietnam in November found the media was slightly more ready to report minor issues of official corruption related to land, finance, health and education matters.
The sharpest decline in reporting on corruption dates from 2008 when two reporters of leading Ho Chi Minh-based newspapers Tuoi Tre and Thanh Nien were arrested for “abusing their position and power when discharging public duty.” Journalists Nguyen Van Hai and Nguyen Viet Chien, who played a key role in 2006 in exposing the so-called “PMU 18” scandal on the eve of the 10th Party Congress, were sentenced to two years each in prison. The two have since been released but have not been able to return to their profession.
Despite tight official restrictions on media, the scandal was extensively covered by most Vietnamese media.The media reports revealing embezzlement of foreign assistance within ProjectManagement Unit-18, a department of the transport ministry, led to the resignation of the then Transport Minister and the conviction of eight officials including Bui Tien Dung, director of PMU 18 in 2007.
It was this expose which hardened the government’s stance on media freedom, leading to issuance of the January 2011 decree. Despite provisions in article 7 of the 1990 press law stating that “the press has the right and duty not to disclose the names of those who provide information if it is harmful to them” except in a criminal investigation case, the decree both mandates the disclosure of sources and imposes heavy fines for non-compliance.
As online community grows, so does control
Vietnam’s online environment has expanded dramatically over the last few years. Broadband internet access has grown from zero in 2008 to almost 13% of the population with new users coming online every day.
Social media is quickly becoming a way of life among young people in Vietnam. According to the Ministry of Information and Culture, 80% of youth in the country have an account with at least one social network. Zing e, a Vietnamese platform modeled on Facebook, is the most popular social network with over five million users at last count as opposed to Facebook’s three million. Video sharing platform YuMe (similar to YouTube) has around three million users.
The blogosphere has also become an alternative platform for exposing corruption in high places, often, by those using anonymous identities. However, the imprisoning of many bloggers and cyber-dissidents each year clearly shows the government’s strict monitoring and control of the online space. Increasingly, online publications are facing a newer and more insidious form of censorship – distributed denial-of-service or DDOS attacks.
VietnamNet, the most popular source of online news in Vietnam, was crippled by DDOS attacks between the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011. The attacks generally saturate the website server computer with a huge number of external requests, causing it to slow down or overloading it completely, thereby causing it to reset. Besides making the website unavailable to the public, online attackers erased the VietnamNet database and posted sensitive information about the news organisation online. DDOS attacks have targeted independent online news sources in other Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysiakini, Irrawaddy, and Mizzima News.
Before the attacks, VietnamNet had run a series of articles touching on territorial disputes between China and Vietnam, as well as governmental responsibility for mismanagement in Vietnam’s largest ship-building firm Vinashin. Although such online attacks are extremely difficult to trace, it is not difficult to see which party would benefit most from removing such critical commentary from a respectable website.
China still calls the shots
Vietnam saw growing political protests in 2011 with citizens assembling to express their views in unprecedented numbers. Much of the dissent centred on Hanoi’s strained relations with fellow communist neighbor China, triggering a state crackdown on freedom of expression. Earlier in the year, strained ties between Vietnam and China saw the government allowing a brief period of media openness on a subject which is normally off-limits. However, current censorship levels remain as severe as ever.
Over 11 weeks starting in June 2011, crowds of people, including intellectuals and bloggers, gathered in Hanoi in anti-China demonstrations. The protests were initially sparked by territorial disputes in the South China Sea, rich in natural oil and gas reserves. Initially, the Vietnamese government was content to allow the protests, which were a way for Hanoi to express its displeasure to Beijing.
However, in July, following talks with China on the issue, the government’s attitude changed and police forcibly detained and interrogated three reporters covering one of the protests and arrested over a dozen demonstrators. When videos of the arrests surfaced on the internet, the arrests stopped and protests were allowed to resume.
But in November last year, 44 supporters of broadcasters Vu Duc Trung and Le Van Thanh (see above) were detained after holding a silent protest outside the Chinese embassy in Hanoi days before their trial for broadcasting to China. The two broadcasters and their supporters are aligned with the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement whose practitioners are persecuted and arbitrarily imprisoned by China’s government. Those attempting to film or photograph the protest were reportedly removed by force.
Vietnam’s government has a record of imposing severe penalties on journalists or bloggers who attempt to cover controversial issues related to Vietnam-China ties. Harsh sentences for dissidents in 2010 made it clear that certain subjects, such as mining concessions granted to Chinese companies that year under questionable circumstances, were not up for discussion.
In November, Prime Minister Nguyen called for new legislation on protests “to ensure people’s rights to freedom and democracy under the constitution and law” are protected. Political assemblies are protected by Vietnam’s Constitution but remain unregulated, giving the police and Ministry of Public Security greater freedom to detain peaceful protesters. The new law will also focus on “preventing acts and behaviour that undermine social order and security,” said the PM.
Territorial disputes are not the only rallying issue in Vietnam. Some 200 people marched through the centre of Hanoi in November to protest government seizure and continued development of land owned by the Catholic Church. Earlier, in August, thousands of protesters gathered in Vinh City, home to 750 Catholic parishes, protesting government policies which they claim relegate Catholics to second-class citizens.
As in the previous year, the press will continue to operate in a climate of self-censorship and fear given the prevailing political climate pointing to a more controlled press environment to ensure social order necessary to the country’s economic reform boost.
Such climate will prevent independent and open media scrutiny of state misconduct. As the UNDP-commissioned study revealed, more out-spoken, stated-owned media like Tuoi Tre, Thanh Nien and VietnamNet are scaling back on their corruption and choose to report on petty crimes or minor corruption cases, there is little to expect from other media players.
As such, state crackdown on internet freedom will increase as online platform is expected to be saturated with pro-democracy calls and corruption exposes banned offline.
Moreover, the mainstream media’s increasing refocusing on soft but popular issues such as violence and entertainment will easily put a defense of its own ethics and professionalism at risk of being manipulated by the state’s attempt to reassert a more legal control over the media.
In the absence of a legal framework genuinely designed to protect the rights of the media and facilitate its access to public records, Vietnamese media will not be able to conduct open and independent scrutiny of state corruption which is a major impediment to economic reform.