Attacks on the Press 1999: Vietnam

Hunkering down to defend the Communist Party as the country’s sole voice of political power, Vietnam’s Politburo continues to bar virtually all attempts at free expression that violate the guidelines of the party leadership.

Vietnam’s National Assembly amended and tightened an already repressive press law in June, centralizing media control–including the Internet–within the Ministry of Culture and Information. The ministry has control over all media content and management; it licenses all journalists and media outlets and has complete authority to revoke those licenses for any reason.

Within its own ranks, though, the party is battling growing dissent fed by widespread official corruption. A June Politburo directive barred party members from speaking out publicly against party decisions. The directive also banned the distribution of any documents that questioned party decisions. In remarks ordered to be carried by official media in August, Communist Party General Secretary Le Ka Phieu summed up his regime’s attitude: “Our people won’t allow any political power-sharing with any other forces. Any ideas to promote Ôabsolute democracy,’ to put human rights above sovereignty, or support multi-party or political pluralism … are lies and cheating.”

In January, retired General Tran Do, a frail and revered U.S.-Vietnam war figure, was ejected from the Communist Party after nearly 60 years of service. Tran Do was punished for criticizing the party’s authoritarian policies in a series of missives that he released to the foreign press and also sent to the party leadership. The official media launched a scathing attack on the 76-year-old one-time comrade of Ho Chi Min, transforming him from national hero to traitor. When Tran Do applied for permission to open an independent newspaper in July, it was a foregone conclusion that the application would be rejected.

In February, describing his treatment in a rare interview with a foreign reporter, Tran Do told the San Jose Mercury News that he had been “surrounded, monitored, stalked…blackened and slandered” since falling out of favor.

The March arrest of Nguyen Thanh Giang, a noted geologist who has frequently written critically about corruption within the Communist Party, underscored the chilly climate for free expression. A storm of international pressure helped lead to Giang’s release in May, although he remains under virtual house arrest.

Despite the harsh media climate, Vietnamese dissidents note that a lively underground press keeps the party from totally dominating information. “Anti-government and anti-party writings increase in number proportionally to the increase in government’s suppression and control of the press,” Dr. Doan Viet Hoat, a former political prisoner and recipient of CPJ’s 1993 International Press Freedom Award, wrote in October. “Clandestine writings are circulated among the people and put on the Internet…. As such, some sort of private and free press exists almost openly and alongside the official press regardless of government’s prohibition.” But these underground efforts are limited, consisting largely of photocopied articles, circulated by hand, and Web sites operated abroad by exiled Vietnamese dissidents.

March 4
Nguyen Thanh Giang, free-lancer IMPRISONED

Giang, a prominent writer and geophysicist, was arrested by police in Hanoi for allegedly possessing “anti-socialist propaganda.”

Vietnamese authorities had frequently harassed Giang for his published writings about corruption within the Communist Party. Giang’s political essays–which dealt with such issues as peaceful reform, multi-party democracy, and human rights–regularly appeared on Internet sites and in newspapers published by Vietnamese living in exile. Giang’s arrest followed a series of articles in the government-controlled press arguing that dissidents posed a threat to the state.

In a March 10 letter to President Tran Duc Luong, CPJ urged him to ensure that Giang be released immediately and that the charges against him be dropped. On May 10, Giang was released on bail after an international campaign on his behalf, However, he remained under virtual house arrest at year’s end. He was under surveillance, his phone line was disconnected, and he was required to report weekly to the police. He was also forbidden to leave Hanoi without official permission.

Giang complained about this ongoing harassment in an October 14 open letter addressed to the Communist Party leadership. The letter stated that on October 11, police searched his home, confiscated his computer, and took him to the local police station, where he spent two days under interrogation. The police apparently suspected Giang of having authored an unsigned obituary that eulogized a disaffected former leader of the Communist Party.