Newspapers are stacked on a Ho Chi Minh City street. The country's newspapers are heavily censored, reporters say. (AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam)

Undercover in Vietnam: Exile is high price reporters pay for press freedom

In the third of CPJ’s four-part “Undercover in Vietnam” series on press freedom in Vietnam, CPJ Southeast Asia Representative Shawn Crispin interviews a reporter living in exile after challenging the censorship imposed in newsrooms. The final part, to be published Tuesday, reveals how prominent bloggers remain behind bars despite the margin for critical debate opening. The series concludes with recommendations for the Vietnamese government and international bodies.

Newspapers are stacked on a Ho Chi Minh City street. The country's state-run press is heavily censored, reporters say. (AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam)
Newspapers are stacked on a Ho Chi Minh City street. The country’s state-run press is heavily censored, reporters say. (AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam)

On December 9, 2012, mainstream journalist and sometimes blogger Pham Doan Trang was arrested while reporting on an anti-China protest in Ho Chi Minh City. She was taken to a rehabilitation camp for commercial sex workers, where she was interrogated by a group of seven officials.

Trang secretly recorded the interrogation and her legal retorts to the officials’ claims that she had disturbed public order, a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment under Vietnam’s authoritarian regime. Upon her release without charge, she gave the recording to an independent blogger who posted it on the Internet on January 13. Within hours, Trang said, the audio recording went viral.

Police officials raided her newspaper’s office the same day and threatened its editor-in-chief with national security-related charges. Trang fled the country to avoid reprisal and possible imprisonment. Under pressure from authorities, Trang’s state-run newspaper, Phap Luat Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh (Ho Chi Minh City Law), dismissed her for leaving work without prior notification.

Undercover in Vietnam
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Trang now lives in self-imposed exile, traveling between the Philippines, Thailand, and the U.S. “I miss my family, friends, colleagues and my work in Vietnam,” said Trang in an interview in Manila, where she now works part time training journalists with VOICE, a Vietnamese exile-run nongovernmental organization. “It’s really hard to watch from outside what happens in Vietnam. It makes me feel helpless.”

It is unclear how many bloggers have fled into exile to escape the government’s current wave of repression against the free press. Boat People S.O.S. (BPSOS), a Vietnamese-American NGO that, among other things, helps Vietnamese refugees resettle in second or third countries, says it has helped a growing number of persecuted bloggers who have fled Vietnam, transited through neighboring Laos or Cambodia, and taken refuge in Thailand.

Due to the political sensitivity of their cases, including one blogger currently held in Bangkok’s Immigration Detention Center while his third country asylum application is processed, BPSOS declined to reveal their identities or tales of persecution.

Trang’s flight into exile is firmly rooted in her unlicensed blogging. Like many mainstream newspaper reporters who are forced to censor news reports that could be perceived as sensitive, Trang frequently posted her uncensored copy on her semi-pseudonymous blog, Trang the Ridiculous. While working as a reporter for the state-run VietnamNet, then the country’s most widely read online news source, Trang posted original versions of several of her articles to her blog.

“Editors told me to tone down or delete parts of my reporting, but it wasn’t clear to me who really gave the orders. Readers noted the difference and editors felt upset because it was clear how much we censored ourselves,” said Trang. “After that, they held editorial meetings where they criticized me using obscenities, and eventually I was dismissed.”

VietnamNet did not respond to a CPJ request for comment about Trang’s dismissal.

After joining Phap Luat in February 2010, Trang opted to post her unpublished and otherwise pre-censored articles for the newspaper less frequently to her blog to maintain good working relations with her editors. That changed, however, after her colleague, the award-winning investigative journalist Vo Thanh Tung, was arrested and detained in August 2013 on bribery charges. He is still being held.

While Phap Luat’s editors shied away from campaigning for Tung’s release, Trang wrote on her blog about his alleged mistreatment while in pre-trial detention. In a September 2013 posting on her Facebook-hosted blog, Trang addressed a series of questions about the case to Politburo member Dinh The Huynh, including whether the sting operation used to arrest Tung legally constituted entrapment.

Within minutes, the blog post received hundreds of “likes,” and her editors asked her to delete it to avoid trouble with the authorities, according to Trang. That same month, she said, a Golden Pen “Excellence in Reporting” award Trang was scheduled to receive from the state-backed Ho Chi Minh City Journalists Association was revoked without explanation the night of the annual award ceremony.

Now in exile, Trang frequently files for Vietnam Right Now, an independent English-language website dedicated to exposing human rights abuses and press freedom violations in Vietnam, and dissident-run websites including the collective Danlambao blog. Trang said that she relies on former journalist and blogger colleagues for news tips and fact checking.

Since her exile, Trang has written articles, including a piece on the officially unacknowledged death toll of Vietnam’s brief but bloody border war with China in 1979 and an exposé published in international media on how censorship works at state-controlled newspapers — reports she could never have published from inside Vietnam. While she appreciates the freedom of reporting from exile, she commiserates with her censored and harassed colleagues back home.

“Life is difficult under political repression, making it very hard for political journalists to write,” said Trang. “There are millions of things to write about in Vietnam: rights abuses, victims of injustice, criminal cover-ups. They’re just not allowed to.”

[Reporting from Manila]