Attacks on the Press 2000: Vietnam

ALTHOUGH PRESIDENT CLINTON RECEIVED STAR TREATMENT during his historic visit to Vietnam in November, little news of the trip was allowed into the country’s state-owned press. Huge crowds greeted the first U.S. president to tour the country since the Vietnam War. Speaking in Ho Chi Minh City, Clinton urged the Vietnamese government to allow more individual freedom. “One of the great debates every society must have is how to balance individual freedom with the need for…cohesion of families, communities, and nation,” the president said.

Communist Party secretary general Le Kha Phieu rebuffed Clinton’s plea, saying, “We respect other nations’ choices of lifestyle and political systems…. We also demand [that] other nations respect our country’s political system and choices.”

In March, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai reiterated that promoting Marxist ideology should be a main goal of the press, which is commercially funded but owned by the state. He said the country’s 563 newspapers and other media outlets, most of which subsist on capitalist advertising, must remain state propaganda tools. “The commercialization of the press is distancing [editors and journalists] from their main goals” of patriotism and national defense, Khai told a gathering of prominent local journalists.

Vietnamese journalists told a CPJ representative who visited the country in late summer that editors in every major city are subjected to weekly instruction and criticism sessions from ideological overseers in the Communist Party. On Friday mornings, senior editors are routinely summoned to meetings in which the previous week’s newspapers are criticized and story outlines discussed for the coming week. After the meetings, editors convey the guidelines to their staffs.

“We always know what we can write, and we always know what we cannot write,” a leading business reporter told CPJ. The Friday meetings also cover controversial topics, so that editors will know what not to publish. “We always know a lot more than we can ever report,” said an editor in Ho Chi Minh City.

Despite constitutional guarantees of free expression, journalists face severe restrictions on reporting anything deemed to be a state secret or a threat to national security. They are also subject to increased legal harassment, the result of a 1999 law that allows the media to be sued for defamation whether or not the information they publish is accurate. This provision was deployed for the first time in September, when the Haiphong Agriculture Materials and Transport Company sued the popular newspaper Tuoi Tre Hanoi for allegedly damaging its reputation.

Dissident journalists face the greatest threat. In April, Dr. Nguyen Xuan Tu, better known by his pen name, Ha Sy Phu, was placed under house arrest in the town of Dalat. A scientist and essayist who had previously been jailed for political writings, Ha was suspected of helping to draft a recent pro-democracy declaration, according to CPJ sources.

Foreign correspondents based in Vietnam face surveillance and restrictions on their activities, especially if they try to interview dissidents. They must inform state authorities if they travel outside their city of residence, and must obtain written permission to interview Vietnamese nationals. In practice, these requirements are routinely ignored. In April, however, security police in Ho Chi Minh City arrested Sylvaine Pasquier, a reporter for the French weekly L’Express, after she tried to meet dissident Nguyen Dan Que. Pasquier was deported on April 14 for what authorities described as immigration violations.

In addition, the state press frequently took it upon itself to criticize foreign media coverage of Vietnam, singling out the Far Eastern Economic Review for a number of articles that pointed out flaws in the Party’s drive against internal corruption.

For more independent news, Vietnamese radio listeners turn to a number of short-wave services, but the government frequently jams the U.S. government-supported Radio Free Asia, along with Hmong-language Christian broadcasts from the Far East Broadcasting Company. Meanwhile, clandestine samizdat-style publications continued to circulate inside the country. One of them, a southern news sheet called Mien Tay, called for political change while documenting local corruption cases in great detail.

Vietnam officially requires the Internet to comply with the sweeping national-security guidelines used to censor other media in the country. Internet access has been slowed by dependence on a single government-owned provider, Vietnam Data Communication, which uses firewalls to block banned sites and is authorized to monitor users’ accounts.

Sylvaine Pasquier, L’Express

Pasquier, a reporter for the French weekly magazine L’Express, was expelled by Vietnamese authorities on April 14, and put on board a commercial flight to Bangkok.

Authorities first approached Pasquier on April 12, on the street outside the home of a political dissident in southern Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. She was detained and interrogated at least three times in two days, according to sources at L’Express.

Foreign correspondents had converged on Ho Chi Minh City around this time, as April 30 marked the 25th anniversary of the North Vietnamese capture of Saigon, which ended the Vietnam War.

Authorities said Pasquier had broken Vietnamese immigration rules by not obtaining a special press visa.

Vietnam uses the visa requirement to control and monitor foreign correspondents. Authorities also require journalists to obtain written permission from the Foreign Ministry before interviewing Vietnamese nationals.

On April 14, CPJ published a news alert saying these restrictions violated Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees the freedom to “seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

MAY 12
Ha Sy Phu, free-lancer
Hoang Minh Chinh, free-lancer
Pham Que Duong, free-lancer
Nguyen Thanh Giang, free-lancer
Hoang Tien, free-lancer
Tran Dung Tien, free-lancer

Dr. Nguyen Xuan Tu, a scientist and political essayist better known by his pen name, Ha Sy Phu, was placed under house arrest and charged with treason, a capital crime.

The arrest came after an April 28 raid on Ha’s home in Dalat, Lam Dong Province, during which police confiscated a computer, a printer, and several diskettes. They returned on May 12 with a warrant for Ha’s arrest signed by Col. Nguyen Van Do, police chief of Lam Dong Province.

Ha was arrested because of official suspicion that he had helped draft a pro-democracy declaration, according to CPJ sources. The arrest was the latest move in a longstanding campaign of government harassment against him.

Ha was apparently held under Administrative Detention Directive 31/CP, which provides for indefinite house arrest without due process, and required to report daily to the Dalat police for interrogation.

This was not the first time Ha had been punished for expressing his political views. On December 4, 1995, he granted an interview to a California radio station in which he urged Vietnamese-Americans to work toward democracy in Vietnam. The next day, he was arrested and held without trial for more than eight months.

Ha finally stood trial in August 1996. He was found guilty under a law that outlaws possessing or revealing “state secrets.” His one-year jail sentence drew protests from around the world. The government released Ha in December 1996, with credit for time served. However, even after his release, Ha, like other former political prisoners, remained under de facto house arrest. He was barred from outside contact, subjected to routine interrogation, and denied access to a telephone.

In an open letter to the Vietnamese National Assembly dated May 19, 2000, a group of five dissidents protested Ha’s latest arrest and called for democratic reform in Vietnam. CPJ learned that all five signatories-Hoang Minh Chinh, Pham Que Duong, Nguyen Thanh Giang, Hoang Tien, and Tran Dung Tien-subsequently had their phone lines cut off and were subjected to other forms of harassment.

CPJ’s June 29 letter to President Tran Duc Luong called for Ha’s immediate release, and urged the government to repeal Administrative Detention Directive 31/CP, which is regularly used to isolate journalists and political dissidents.

Official harassment of Ha Sy Phu had eased slightly by year’s end, although the treason charge was not withdrawn and he remained under administrative detention.