Pro-democracy activism, widespread labor strikes, and religious protests challenged the government throughout the year. So did galloping inflation and a nose-diving stock market, all of which stoked competition between conservative and moderate camps inside the authoritarian regime. Those intra-party tensions were reflected in the government’s media policies, with conservative elements invoking national security needs to tighten controls. Critical publications that had been allowed some latitude by the moderate faction of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung were targeted.
Press freedom reversals were glaringly illustrated in October when reporters Nguyen Viet Chien of the daily Thanh Nien and Nguyen Van Hai of the daily Tuoi Tre were criminally convicted for their groundbreaking reporting in 2006 on a major corruption scandal involving the Transport Ministry.
The reporters had led the way in breaking news that ministry officials had embezzled 12 billion dong (US$750,000) in state funds to wager on international soccer matches. The revelations led to the resignation of Transport Minister Dao Dinh Binh and the prosecution of several ministry officials on corruption charges. At the time, many believed the reports signaled a new official tolerance for critical journalism. Those hopes were dashed when Chien and Hai were arrested on May 11.
Judge Tran Van Vy said Chien had published information that “damaged the prestige of certain high-ranking officials, inciting the population to have a negative opinion of high levels of government.” He sentenced the reporter to two years in prison on a charge of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state.” Hai, who pleaded guilty to the same charge and admitted to some errors in his reporting, received a non-custodial, two-year re-education sentence.
The court decision was widely condemned, locally and abroad. The European Parliament passed a resolution describing their convictions as “an attack on freedom of expression.” Representing a rare instance of editorial independence, several Vietnamese newspapers published articles and opinion pieces in the reporters’ defense. Soon after, the Communist Party’s Commission for Ideology and Culture ordered local media to curb coverage of the case.
Bui Thanh and Hoang Hai Van, top editors with Tuoi Tre, and Huynh Kim Sanh, Thanh Nien’s managing editor, were dismissed from their senior editorial positions after publishing articles critical of the prosecutions. Deputy Minister of Information and Communications Do Quy Doan revoked the press credentials of at least five other journalists for what he referred to as “serious violations,” according to news reports.
Other journalists faced harassment for presumed sympathies with pro-democracy groups. In May, a court sentenced Nguyen Quoc Hai, a news assistant for the Japan- and U.S.-based Chan Troi Moi (Radio New Horizon), to nine months in prison and three years of probation on national security-related charges. He was first detained in November 2007.
Hai was arrested after helping report on protests in Ho Chi Minh City by aggrieved farmers who had been evicted from their land by state authorities. Authorities claimed the charges were related to his role in handing out pro-democracy fliers. He was released in August but continued to face harassment from police.
Hai was detained again in September, this time for two weeks, as police questioned him about protests over contested land that were organized by Catholic groups in Hanoi, according to the exile-led pro-democracy Viet Tan party. Probation restrictions imposed in the Ho Chi Minh City case barred him from traveling to Thailand, where he had lived since the 1980s and where his wife and two children continued to reside, according to CPJ sources.
Le Hong Thien, U.S.-based editor of Gia Dinh and a reporter for the Viet Times Weekly, was arrested after covering April’s Olympic torch relay in Ho Chi Minh Cityand the politically sensitive anti-China protests it engendered. His U.S. passport was confiscated, and he was placed under house arrest at his brother’s home in the city, according to a statement issued by the publications. Thien faced two weeks of interrogations before being released from house arrest.
Vietnam maintained some of Asia’s strictest Internet controls. Authorities systematically blocked any Web sites and online material they perceived to be a threat to its one-party, authoritarian system. OpenNet Initiative, an academic partnership that studies Internet censorship issues, said authorities deployed a “multi-layered approach” that entailed technological monitoring, legal actions, and public warnings. OpenNet likened Vietnam’s approach to that of China.
On September 10, a Vietnamese court in Ho Chi Minh City sentenced blogger Nguyen Van Hai to 30 months in prison on what appeared to be retaliatory charges of tax evasion. Deutsche Presse-Agentur said Hai belonged to a group of bloggers known as the League of Independent Journalists and that his colleagues believed he had been targeted for critical reporting on nationalist protests against China’s claims to the nearby Spratly and Paracel Islands.
Several fellow bloggers were summoned to police stations or isolated at their homes to prevent them from attending or writing about Hai’s court proceedings, according to the exile-run pro-democracy Viet Tan party.
At least one foreign journalist was harassed. On September 19, police authorities assaulted and detained Associated Press reporter Ben Stocking after he attempted to cover Catholic prayer vigils against city development of claimed church lands in Hanoi. According to AP, police punched and kicked Stocking after he requested that they return his confiscated camera. In police custody, he was hit in the head with his camera, opening a wound that required four stitches. He was released the same day in the care of a U.S. Embassy official.
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