Attacks on the Press 2001: Vietnam

During 2001, Vietnam forged closer ties with the international community. In July, the country hosted the Association of Southeast Asian Nations conference, and in November, the national assembly signed a long-awaited trade agreement with the United States. Spurred by China’s admission, the Vietnamese government moved ahead with efforts to enter the World Trade Organization. Yet Vietnam made no progress in improving press freedom.

The state owns all of the country’s nearly 500 media outlets and gives journalists strict guidelines that specify what they can and cannot publish. At a national conference on the press and publishing industry in October, Nguyen Khoa Diem, secretary of the Party Central Committee, said the media should focus on “promoting patriotism and national pride.”

Journalists who publish restricted information can be prosecuted for revealing state secrets, a broadly defined term that covers even basic economic data, such as money supply and inflation. Individuals who dare to write about the country’s leaders or the political situation face especially harsh reprisals, including dismissal, imprisonment, or house arrest.

On June 12, authorities confiscated the memoirs of Lt. Gen. Tran Do, one of the country’s most prominent political dissidents. The writings contained a critical analysis of the 9th Party Congress held in April, as well as Tran’s thoughts on the future of the nation. Tran was held under strict surveillance, first at a hospital and then at his home in Hanoi.

In early September, just as the U.S. House of Representatives was preparing to vote on the trade bill and the accompanying Vietnam Human Rights Act, the Vietnamese government detained about a dozen dissidents for questioning–including journalist Nguyen Vu Binh and writer Nguyen Thanh Giang–in connection with an anti-corruption organization that several of the activists had founded. They were released soon after.

While dissidents do use the Internet to circulate independent news and opinion, government controls and limited access impede such efforts. High service charges and the fact that Vietnam only has 3.2 telephone lines per 100 people prevent many citizens from going online.

For the first time since 1997, the government this year issued new regulations governing Internet use. The statutes, which took effect on September 7, liberalized the sector by allowing private companies to become Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as long as they have two years experience in the industry. Previously, only state-owned businesses were allowed to provide Internet services.

However, the decree states that Internet Access Providers (IAPs), which control the physical connection between Vietnamese ISPs and the rest of the world, must lease telephone lines from the state-run Vietnam Post and Telecommunications Corporation. IAPs are also responsible for installing firewalls and other censorship mechanisms.

The new regulations impose fines of up to 20 million dong (US$1,330) for illegal Internet activity, including distributing restricted information and pornographic material and stealing personal information from private citizens.

Government firewalls already block sites containing information on dissident movements or pornography. Nevertheless, a government official acknowledged that firewalls are “no longer effective,” and that those who wanted to evade government controls could do so, according to a report in the San Jose Mercury News, an American newspaper.

While the government cracks down on domestic Internet opposition, foreign correspondents have also faced censorship and criticism. In October, the People’s Army daily Quan Doi Nhan Dan published an article condemning foreign reporters for “supporting, coordinating, and praising [the dissidents] in a concerted effort by Western media in a choir against Vietnam.”

On October 11, the government issued new regulations requiring all news video transmitted via satellite by foreign journalists to be inspected by the government first. Officials have up to three days to approve videos, a prohibitively long time in the television news world.

June 12

Tran Do, free-lancer

Police in Ho Chi Minh City confiscated a manuscript section of the memoirs of Lt. Gen. Tran Do, Vietnam’s most prominent political dissident.

Tran, a former general in the Vietnam People’s Army, had previously served as head of the Culture, Literature, and Art Department of the Party Central Committee and as deputy chairman of the National Assembly. He was expelled from the Communist Party in 1999 after writing essays calling for political reform.

Tran’s memoirs, written in three separate sections, contain his thoughts on the future of the country, as well as his analysis of the 9th Party Congress held in April, according to international media reports. The second section was published overseas last year.

On June 12, the Hanoi-based Tran was in Ho Chi Minh City visiting his son. He brought the 83-page third section of his memoirs. On arrival in Ho Chi Minh City, Tran took the manuscript to a copier, where he printed 15 copies to distribute to his family and friends, according to a U.S.-based journalist familiar with the case.

On his way back from the copy shop, state security officers stopped Tran’s car and confiscated all the copies of his manuscript. He was then brought to the local precinct and questioned before being released.

Authorities brought Tran in for questioning again on June 22. Soon after the interrogation session, the 77-year-old Tran fell ill and was taken to a local emergency room. He was later transferred to the Friendship Hospital in Hanoi, where he was put under tight surveillance. He was later released from the hospital, and is recovering at home, where he remained under surveillance at year’s end.

Tran repeatedly asked authorities to return his manuscript. He also wrote to the Vietnam Writers’ Union, of which he is a member, asking for their support.

On August 23, CPJ wrote to President Tran Duc Luong urging him to ensure that all copies of Tran’s manuscript are returned, and that he be allowed to write and publish without fear of reprisals.

October 11

All foreign journalists

The Foreign Ministry and the Department of Post and Communications issued new regulations requiring the government to inspect and approve all video footage transmitted via satellite by foreign journalists working in Vietnam.

Under the regulations, foreign journalists must apply for a permit and describe in detail the contents of each video to be transmitted. The government can take up to three days to approve the video.

Previously, foreign journalists had to describe the contents of a video in general terms to get a “letter of introduction” from the Foreign Ministry to the satellite feeding company, according to a Hanoi-based foreign correspondent.

The new regulations state, “Organizations and individuals must not abuse international satellite feeds to oppose the Vietnamese state, create national animosity, instigate violence or undermine traditional Vietnamese customs and values.”

Such broadly worded charges are commonly used to crack down on critics of the government, which has repeatedly accused the foreign media of supporting political dissidents.

On October 22, the People’s Army daily newspaper, Quan Doi Nhan Dan, published an article accusing foreign media of using “these dissidents to propagate the capitalist political and economic model, the bourgeois concepts of democratic values, freedom and human rights.”