Press conditions in Vietnam largely stagnated in 2005, despite efforts by the country’s leaders to project an image of greater openness. Three writers remained imprisoned on antistate charges for material distributed online; print and broadcast media continued to work under the supervision of the government; and attacks on journalists were common.
Prime Minister Phan Van Khai traveled to the United States in June, marking the first such trip by a high-level leader since the end of the war in 1975. It was an opportunity for the prime minister to showcase the economic progress that his country had made, to seek foreign investment from a top trading partner and former enemy, and to promote Vietnam’s bid for accession to the World Trade Organization.
Coming just two months after the country celebrated the 30th anniversary of the end of U.S. military involvement, the visit was given glowing coverage by Vietnam’s state-controlled press, despite demonstrations over the government’s human rights record.
Before meeting with Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates during the first leg of his trip, Khai said that demonstrators, especially Vietnamese émigrés, failed to understand the progress of recent years. “If they come back to the homeland and have returned, in reality, they will have different views,” Khai said, according to The Associated Press. But human rights and press freedom organizations, including CPJ, noted that repression of religious leaders, dissidents, and independent journalists belied the government’s representation of reform.
Vietnam released the journalist and physician Nguyen Dan Que in February in one of several recent amnesties of high-profile political prisoners. Que remained under tight surveillance after he was released, however, and faced continuing restrictions on communication and travel outside his home. In March, he gave an interview to the U.S. government-funded Voice of America in which he called for democracy and decried Internet restrictions, censorship of the media, and Vietnam’s lack of a private press. Following the interview, police surveillance of Que’s house intensified, visitors were harassed, and the writer faced ongoing restrictions on his travel and communication, according to his brother.
In April, in advance of celebrations of the 30th anniversary of the end of the war, articles in state media denounced dissident writer Tran Khue as a reactionary. State media also published a letter, purportedly from a veterans group, that called for writer Nguyen Thanh Giang to be “rid from public life.” Meanwhile, independent writers Nguyen Khac Toan, Nguyen Vu Binh, and Pham Hong Son remained imprisoned on sentences of 12, seven, and five years, respectively, for news and commentary distributed via the Internet.
A growing newspaper market has engendered competition for stories that attract readers, but the Ministry of Culture and Information conducts meetings and issues orders to manage coverage and ensure that the media remain accountable to central authorities. Reiterating the common government line on the press, President Tran Duc Luong in June praised state news agencies for helping the public “understand the party and government’s policies and the revolutionary cause in general,” according to the Vietnam News Agency. He called on all media to join in the government’s fight against corruption, bureaucracy, and waste.
Criticism of the Communist Party and national leaders remained off-limits to the press. But the government’s qualified encouragement of investigative reporting on topics such as corruption and health issues has led to some results. Investigative journalists for the daily Thanh Nien in August revealed potentially hazardous lapses in the nation’s efforts to control the avian flu. While local agriculture officials were incensed, the report generated vows of reform from the nation’s top legislative body, according to The Washington Post.
The mixed role of the media as both an arm of the government and a narrow kind of watchdog was reflected in the unusually public investigation of journalist Nguyen Thi Lan Anh. In January, Lan Anh was indicted and placed under house arrest for “appropriating state secrets” in her reporting for the popular state-owned daily Tuoi Tre. In a May 2004 article, she cited a leaked Health Ministry document that recommended a comprehensive investigation of a pharmaceutical company accused of price gouging. After authorities began an inquiry into how the reporter got the evidence, Tuoi Tre and other newspapers came to her defense. In April, criminal charges against Lan Anh and the official who leaked the document were dropped, according to local media.
Attacks on journalists have increased in recent years, as competition forced them to become more aggressive. In October, Phuong Thao, a reporter for the Khuyen Hoc and Dan Tri newspapers, was briefly handcuffed by a police officer outside the French embassy. Dan Tri responded to the incident by publishing other journalists’ complaints of harassment and assaults. An Ninh The Gioi (Global Security) reporter Trang Dung, whose story was accompanied by a photograph of his bloodied face, recalled an incident in which security guards beat him and destroyed his camera even after he showed his media credentials. Reporter Do Van Khanh, of the newspaper Lao Dong, wrote that he had been attacked for his work and called on authorities to take journalists’ complaints seriously. “To me, journalism is the foundation of a democratic society, and an attack on a journalist becomes an attack on democracy itself,” he wrote.
Another reporter, Mai Xuan Cuong, said that whether assailants did not understand the role of journalists, or were purposely aiming to inhibit journalists from fulfilling their duties, “it seems to be a systemic problem.” Cuong urged the government to bring the perpetrators of the attacks to justice.
The officer who harassed Phuong Thao was later dismissed for “violating work procedures while doing duty, causing negative consequences,” The Associated Press reported, quoting state media. Observers pointed out that it cost authorities little to penalize the officer, and that the decision to allow newspapers to publicize this relatively minor incident might have been intended as a warning to low-level officials who act outside their authority.
Use of the Internet has skyrocketed in just a few years. State media reported in 2005 that Vietnam had more than seven million Internet users, nearly double the year before. Along with this huge increase in use have come regular attempts by the government to monitor and block online content. In July, government agencies issued a joint circular requiring additional certification for the owners of Internet cafés and demanding that anyone seeking Internet access at these cafés’ provide identification before going online.
The government does not consider writers who use the Internet to distribute uncensored news and commentary to be journalists, and it targets them as dissidents. All three of the journalists who have been held in Vietnamese prisons since 2002 were jailed for their online work. Toan, convicted of disseminating information about farmers’ protests, will remain imprisoned until 2014 if he serves his full sentence for espionage. Son, a medical doctor, was arrested on “antistate” charges after he translated and posted online an essay titled “What Is Democracy?” that had first appeared on the U.S. State Department Web site. Binh, formerly a journalist at the official Tap Chi Cong San (Journal of Communism), was sentenced on charges of writing and exchanging “information and materials that distorted the party and state policies” in articles that called for reform and criticized Vietnam’s border agreements with China.