Attacks on the Press 2003: Vietnam

The already dire situation for Vietnamese journalists deteriorated in 2003, with attacks increasing against reporters covering crime and corruption. Those who used the Internet to distribute independent news and opinion faced harsh prison sentences and increasing surveillance. The traditional media remained under the tight regulation of government censors.

In response to escalating repression of independent journalists and political dissidents in 2003, CPJ named Vietnam one of the “World’s Worst Places to Be a Journalist.” In doing so, CPJ noted that “the government typically accuses independent journalists of endangering national security and treats even moderate criticism of the government or support for democratic reform as treasonous offenses.” The arrest of Nguyen Dan Que brought the total number of journalists in prison at year’s end to nine. Most of the imprisoned journalists were charged with national security crimes. Three of the journalists in prison had not yet been put on trial by year’s end, although two of them–Tran Khue and Pham Que Duong–had been detained for at least a year.

Foreign governments and international human rights and press freedom organizations, including CPJ, expressed outrage at a 13-year prison sentence handed down to Internet essayist Pham Hong Son in June. Three months later, in unusual deference to international pressure, the Hanoi Supreme Court reduced Son’s sentence to five years on appeal. In November, after spending more than nine months in incommunicado detention, elderly writer Tran Dung Tien was given a 10-month sentence on charges of “abusing democratic rights to harm the interests of the state.” He was released a week after his trial.

Authorities routinely use the threat of jail time to silence those who use the Internet to distribute information or viewpoints banned from the official press. Five of the eight journalists in prison, including Son, were targeted after writing or distributing information online.

Vietnam currently has 2.7 million Internet users, double the number of a year ago, according to official figures, and the technological infrastructure has not been able to keep up with this rapid increase. In 2003, the government announced initiatives to improve Internet connections by allowing new Internet service providers (ISPs) to operate and by installing two new gateways linking Vietnam to Hong Kong and Shanghai, China. The government determines what information Internet users can access by directly controlling the gateways that link Vietnamese ISPs with the rest of the world, and by a series of regulations limiting online content. An April editorial in the Hanoi Quan Doi Nhan Dan, the official publication of the Vietnamese army, acknowledged that the firewall has “caused serious bottlenecks to Internet connection and traffic.” The editorial advocated a more efficient censorship system and called for the consolidation of technical Internet controls, a comprehensive list of banned Web sites, and severer punishments for individuals who access forbidden sites.

ISPs and cybercafé owners are held legally responsible if their customers access banned information online. As a way of justifying such regulations, a Culture and Information Ministry official explained, “Restaurant owners must guarantee the food is free from harmful substances. Therefore it’s the same with Internet café owners. They are not allowed to provide young people with poisonous substances.”

The Culture and Information Ministry oversees all traditional media content, and harsh penalties threaten journalists who overstep the official boundaries in their reporting. In July, the ministry suspended Sinh Vien Vietnam magazine, which was very popular among students and youth, for “serious wrongdoings in the content of its news and articles, photo selection and layout.” Among the offending issues was one that included a picture of a banknote imprinted with a photo of revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh floating in a toilet, and another that ran a cover photo of a nude statue.

Top government officials have acknowledged that crime and corruption are among the most severe challenges facing Vietnamese society and politics, and in response, the state-run media have reported more vigorously on these issues. Journalists faced an additional threat in 2003, with corrupt officials and criminals implicated by press reports seeking violent retribution. CPJ documented four attacks on journalists in 2003, a marked increase over previous years. In one of the most egregious examples, two reporters from official publications were beaten by the chairman of a village cooperative while investigating villagers’ complaints about embezzlement by commune officials. Police later filed a report accusing the journalists of “disorderly conduct.” While the official press does occasionally report on incidents of violence against journalists, police are often slow to respond to such attacks. n