As Vietnam continued a period of impressive economic growth, two milestones marked its increased presence on the world stage. In November, Hanoi hosted its most important international event, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, which brought together U.S. President George W. Bush, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and other major world leaders. That same month, the World Trade Organization (WTO) formally invited Vietnam to become its 150th member, bringing to fruition Hanoi’s 11-year effort to join the group.
Government efforts to allay international concerns over the country’s human rights record ahead of these events gave national media and dissident writers a rare opportunity to test official control over news and opinions. State-controlled media appeared to push the limits of the censorship apparatus, and the samizdat opposition press grew louder despite lingering risks.
A bolder and increasingly competitive Vietnamese media took on a major corruption scandal that embroiled top officials early in the year. State-controlled domestic newspapers and Internet publications were uncharacteristically aggressive in their coverage of the investigation, beginning with allegations in January that the director of the Transport Ministry’s Project Management Unit 18 (PMU18) had spent millions of U.S. dollars betting on international soccer matches. Demanding accountability and a response to the public’s outrage, the media played a major role in prompting the resignation of Transport Minister Dao Dinh Binh and in spurring criminal investigations against a coterie of government officials.
Several journalists were physically attacked in an apparent attempt to inhibit their coverage of the scandal, local media reported. “It feels like journalists covering this case are in great danger,” a Doi Song va Phap Luat newspaper reporter told the Ho Chi Minh City-based Thanh Nien after being assaulted. A man photographed attacking a Thanh Nien photojournalist was later revealed to be a police captain—who was reprimanded for failing to wear his uniform but not charged, according to the newspaper.
While a top official from the Ministry of Public Security promised to prosecute those who attacked and obstructed journalists, outgoing Prime Minister Phan Van Khai sent a very different message in May when he called for prosecution of news agencies he accused of “going too far” in their reporting on PMU18 and other cases, according to state media.
“Several state news agencies have committed legal violations by posting misleading information, infringing citizens’ privacy, and raising public concerns,” Khai charged in an official document sent to the Ministry of Culture and Information, government news agencies reported. The prime minister urged the ministry to take assertive action against offending news agencies instead of levying fines or extracting corrections; in the same document, Khai encouraged private citizens to file civil lawsuits against the press if they felt wronged by media misinformation.
The government’s efforts to rein in the press went further in July, when it put in place a new system of fines of as much as 30 million dong (around US$1,900) for “violators of culture and information regulations.” The decision listed a catchall of media crimes, including “denying revolutionary achievements; defaming the nation, great persons, and national heroes; slandering and wounding the prestige of agencies and organizations; publishing more than the registered number of 1,000 copies; and importing color photocopy machines without a license,” according to state media. The rules supplemented existing criminal laws that restricted press freedom in the guise of protecting national security.
In October, the government temporarily suspended two newspapers for their reporting on corruption and printing problems with the country’s new nonpaper banknotes. Eight other publications were fined for their reports on the notes. Some news agencies had published allegations that the son of a high-level banking official had profited from the printing contract. Another newspaper, The Gioi, was suspended indefinitely in November after publishing readers’ letters criticizing government corruption.
Corruption scandals formed the backdrop of the government’s 10th Party Congress, a five-year gathering in April that mandated a transition in leadership. But the new administration—President Nguyen Minh Triet and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, whose appointments were confirmed in June—was not expected to diverge from the path of its predecessor. The government continued to focus on the country’s economic integration into the world market and the Communist Party’s monopoly on power within Vietnam.
Ahead of its accession to the WTO and its hosting of APEC, the government took steps to ease diplomatic concerns over its human rights practices, including its detention of several dissidents who were U.S. citizens. Nguyen Van Dai, a lawyer who helped launch an online publication promoting democracy, noted that conditions for dissidents appeared to have improved in recent years. Though the government questioned him extensively about the publication, he told CPJ in a telephone interview that, “three years ago, you wouldn’t be talking to me right now because I would be in jail.” In a late-year concession to U.S. pressure, the government announced that Vietnamese-American political prisoners would be deported.
Several other high-profile prisoners were freed in amnesties declared during the year, including two Internet writers. Nguyen Khac Toan was released in January after serving more than four years of a 12-year sentence imposed in connection with his reporting on demonstrations outside the National Assembly in December 2001 and January 2002; and Pham Hong Son was released in August after serving four years on “antistate” charges arising from his translation and online posting of an essay headlined “What Is Democracy?” that initially appeared on a U.S. State Department Web site. Both continue to face years of political and travel restrictions. Journalist Nguyen Vu Binh, jailed in 2002 after criticizing border agreements between Vietnam and China, was the sole member of the press who remained in prison because of his work. He was serving a seven-year jail term on espionage charges.
But the amnesties did not indicate official tolerance for opposition to the Communist Party. Independent writers who dared to be vocal in their calls for multiparty democracy were frequently detained, harassed, followed, and interrogated. As one example, for months authorities cut off all telephone lines of formerly imprisoned writer Nguyen Thanh Giang, isolating him, his wife, and his ailing father from contact with the outside world.
Actions against dissidents came to a head in the run-up to Independence Day on September 2. Among those targeted were signatories to a petition circulated in April outlining calls for democracy and expanded freedom. Authorities attempted to thwart the efforts of five people, including freed writer Nguyen Khac Toan, to launch an online newspaper called Tu Do Dan Chu (Freedom and Democracy), which was to be downloaded and distributed in print on September 2. Toan and fellow writer Hoang Tien were among those repeatedly detained and interrogated.
An official Voice of Vietnam radio report slammed CPJ’s criticism of their harassment: “CPJ claimed that they have been acting to protect dissidents in Vietnam who are not allowed to publish private newspapers. This is just a pretext to conceal their biased and unjust views on Vietnam.” The report called independent publishers “opportunists who are dissatisfied with the regime and want to run and use private newspapers as a tool to disseminate slanderous allegations against the people’s peaceful life and the country’s renovation process.”
The writers succeeded in posting Tu Do Dan Chu online, but it was quickly blocked by Vietnam’s Internet filtering system. The Internet censorship research organization OpenNet Initiative reported that the government, with a focus on silencing political criticism, had stepped up its efforts to filter and monitor content for the more than 10 million Vietnamese citizens thought to be online.
In September, the family of U.S. citizen and Vietnamese opposition party member Cong Thanh Do revealed that he had been imprisoned. He was known to CPJ as a writer whose online articles on imprisoned dissident cases were posted under the name Tran Nam. After three weeks, he was released and deported to California, but other members of the party arrested in the same sweep remained in jail. During the APEC summit, police and security forces kept dissidents under heavy surveillance and held recently freed writer Pham Hong Son under virtual house arrest.
Foreign journalists continued to need explicit government permission to travel outside of Hanoi, where all of them are required to live. Some told CPJ that they assumed that authorities were monitoring their activities and communication, especially any contact with dissidents or banned religious leaders. Correspondents feared that if they angered the government while doing their jobs, their visas would not be renewed.