Attacks on the Press 2002: Vietnam

In an effort to contain public dissatisfaction with official corruption and a lack of political reform, Vietnam’s government tightened its already stringent control over the media during 2002. Writers were detained, harassed, placed under tight surveillance, or arrested for expressing independent viewpoints, while authorities targeted those who use the Internet to distribute independent news or opinions.

In January, the government launched a crackdown on free expression by instructing police to confiscate and destroy prohibited publications. At the same time, officials escalated surveillance of several well-known dissidents, retired Lt. Gen. Tran Do and Nguyen Thanh Giang among them, and placed writer Bui Minh Quoc under house arrest for “possessing anti-government literature,” including his own writing.

Quoc was one of several writers targeted by the government for criticizing land and sea border agreements between China and Vietnam, which were signed as part of a rapprochement following the 1979 war between the two countries. Quoc and others criticized the government for agreeing to border concessions without consulting the Vietnamese people. Sensitivities over the issue were heightened in late February, when Chinese president Jiang Zemin visited Vietnam as part of a bilateral reconciliation effort.

Just before President Jiang arrived, authorities arrested law school graduate Le Chi Quang for writing several critical articles, including one titled, “Beware of Imperial China.” His arrest demonstrated the efficiency of the state’s Internet controls: Cybercafé owners and Internet service providers (ISPs) are required by law to monitor customers’ activities and prevent distribution of “harmful” material, including any unsanctioned political reporting. Officials at a popular ISP notified public security officials that Quang had used a specific Internet café in the capital, Hanoi, to communicate with “reactionaries” living abroad, and on February 21, more than 30 police officers arrived at the café and arrested Quang. Writers Nguyen Vu Binh, Tran Khue, and Pham Hong Son were also arrested or harassed for their writings about the border agreements, as well as for disseminating their opinions online.

While Internet use in Vietnam is still limited by expense and poor telecommunications infrastructure, the number of people online jumped to 1.3 million in 2002 from 300,000 in 2001. An increasing number of people use the Internet to express their opinions and to distribute information prohibited in the traditional media. In August, authorities shut the domestic Web site, which had become a popular forum for posting articles and comments that criticized government policy. In explaining the closure, a government spokesperson said the site had posted “articles and messages that promote Nazism, violence, a multi-party political system, and ideological pluralism.” In November, the Hanoi People’s Court sentenced Le Chi Quang to four years in prison, sending an additional message to the burgeoning Internet generation that publishing critical viewpoints online will not be tolerated.

The government owns all of the country’s print and broadcast media outlets and issues strict reporting guidelines. While the official media are usually a mere conduit for government policy, in June, local journalists played a very important role in investigating and exposing a corruption scandal that linked several high-level government officials with Nam Cam, the leader of an underground criminal gang. The government at first displayed a rare willingness to tolerate this independent, investigative reporting but soon cracked down on the coverage. In an interview with an official newspaper, a propaganda official said that all reporters had been instructed not to “expose secrets, create internal divisions, or hinder key propaganda tasks” while covering the scandal. By year’s end, more than 100 people had been arrested in the case, including several vice ministers and other high-ranking officials.

Throughout 2002, the government maintained its stringent control over foreign journalists in the country. Foreign reporters must receive formal permission before conducting interviews or traveling outside Hanoi and are frequently lambasted in the official press for supporting “hostile forces” overseas. As the Nam Cam corruption scandal broke, the government refused all interview requests about the case from foreign correspondents. These journalists often must take additional precautions in their reporting since Vietnamese citizens who have contact with them–either as sources, translators, or assistants–are often harassed.

Overseas media are among the only sources of independent information in the country, but because of tight government controls, very few Vietnamese citizens can access such news. Vietnamese-language shortwave radio broadcasts from services including the U.S. government-sponsored Radio Free Asia and the BBC are a crucial information source, although these broadcasts are routinely blocked. In June, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai signed a decree reaffirming that only government officials, state-run media organizations, and foreign businesses and residents are allowed to access international television programs transmitted by satellite into Vietnam. In recent years, however, Vietnamese citizens have ignored the ban, turning to such satellite broadcasts for independent news coverage.

Advocates of free expression in Vietnam lost an influential voice in August, when dissident Lt. Gen. Tran Do died of multiple ailments at the age of 79. Do, a decorated war veteran and the former head of the Culture and Ideology Department, was expelled from the Communist Party in 1999 after he began to call openly for multiparty democracy. During his last years, Do was under tight surveillance and his writings were banned. In a three-part memoir, which police confiscated from him in 2001, he wrote, “Our present life, it seems, is less and less like what we dreamed of building, and more and more like what we had spent time overthrowing.” At his official eulogy, a government spokesman said that Do had made important contributions to the party but had “made mistakes and errors in his final years.”

January 7

Ha Sy Phu, free-lance

Police searched the home of Nguyen Xuan Tu, a scientist and political essayist better known by his pen name, Ha Sy Phu, and confiscated his computer. Ha Sy Phu has been under house arrest in Dalat, Lam Dong Province, since May 2000. The raid came during a period of escalating harassment of dissidents in Vietnam. Authorities cut phone lines and maintained tight surveillance over numerous dissidents, including Ha Sy Phu.

January 8

Nguyen Khac Toan, free-lance

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Tran Do, free-lance
Nguyen Thanh Giang, free-lance

Tran Khue, free-lance
Nguyen Thi Thanh Xuan, free-lance
Vu Cao Quan, free-lance

The government issued a decree instructing police to confiscate and destroy publications that do not have official approval. An announcement of the decree, signed by Vice Minister of Culture and Information Nguyen Khac Hai, appeared in newspapers in Vietnam on January 8, according to CPJ sources. The new decree established formal nationwide regulations tightening restrictions on prohibited publications, including those that express dissenting political viewpoints.

According to The Associated Press, a government official named several publications that were targeted for confiscation, including the memoirs of Lt. Gen. Tran Do, Vietnam’s most famous dissident. Tran Do’s three-part memoirs include his thoughts on the future of the country, as well as an analysis of the 9th Party Congress, held in April 2001. In June 2001, police confiscated 15 photocopies of Part 3 from Tran Do. Part 2 was published overseas, also in 2001, and has been widely distributed on the black market in Vietnam.

Also banned were Dialogue 2000 and Dialogue 2001, hard-copy editions of an Internet publication started in 1999 by Ho Chi Minh City-based scholars Tran Khue and Nguyen Thi Thanh Xuan. The editions featured articles by both writers advocating political reform. Also confiscated were “Meditation and Aspiration,” an essay by dissident geophysicist Nguyen Thanh Giang, and “A Few Words Before Dying,” an essay by Haiphong-based dissident Vu Cao Quan.

The decree accompanied an escalation in the harassment of Vietnamese dissidents. In preceding days, the phone lines of several dissidents had been cut, while Lt. Gen. Tran Do and Nguyen Thanh Giang had come under heightened surveillance. In August 2002, Tran Do died of multiple ailments at the age of 79.

January 14

Bui Minh Quoc, free-lance

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February 21

Le Chi Quang, free-lance

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March 8

Tran Khue, free-lance

Seven police officers entered and searched the home of free-lance journalist Tran Khue, also known as Tran Van Khue, in Ho Chi Minh City and confiscated his computer equipment and several documents, according to CPJ sources. On March 10, Tran Khue sent a message via cell phone to a friend indicating that he was in danger. Immediately after the message was sent, all means of communication with Tran Khue were cut.

According to CPJ sources, police searched Tran Khue’s house for materials relating to an open letter that he had sent to Chinese president Jiang Zemin during Jiang’s visit to Vietnam in late February. The letter, which was distributed over the Internet, protested recent border accords between the two countries. Tran Khue has been under house arrest since October 2001, when he and other dissidents tried to legally register the National Association to Fight Corruption.

On December 29, 2002, about 20 security officials came to Khue’s home and detained him for meeting with Hanoi-based democracy activist Pham Que Duong and his wife. The officers also confiscated his computer and computer disks. The day before, Duong was arrested at the Ho Chi Minh City train station as he was returning to Hanoi. A government official stated that the two men had been “caught red-handed while carrying out activities that seriously violate Vietnamese laws.” She said that Khue and Duong will be tried but did not clarify on what charges or when.

March 27

Pham Hong Son, free-lance

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June 20

All journalists

Nguyen Khoa Diem, head of the Communist Party’s Central Ideology and Culture Board, declared that the media were no longer permitted to report on a high-profile corruption case involving a well-known criminal gang.

Several high-ranking government officials and police officers were implicated for accepting bribes from the gang, led by notorious mob boss Truong Van Cam (also known as Nam Cam). Tran Mai Hanh, secretary-general of the Vietnam Journalists Association, was removed from the Communist Party Central Committee after authorities accused him of lobbying for Nam Cam’s release from re-education camp in the 1990s. By July, almost 100 people had been arrested in the scandal.

The domestic media initially played a very important role in investigating and exposing the case. While the government at first displayed a rare willingness to tolerate this independent, investiga- tive reporting, they eventually cracked down on the coverage.

On June 20, in an interview with Phap Luat (Law) newspaper, Diem said that the Ideology and Culture Board had instructed the media not to “expose secrets, create internal divisions, or hinder key propaganda tasks” while reporting on the scandal, according to Vietnamese and international news reports.

September 25

Nguyen Vu Binh, free-lance

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