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Vietnam: Free Press is Not Free

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A Vietnamese newsstand. Photo credits: RFA.

Vietnam always boasts an impressive record of having over 800 newspapers, thousands of publications, tens of thousands of journalists, a national news agency, hundreds of TV channels and broadcasting channels, as well as hundreds of online newspapers and magazines, as evidence that there is a free press in the country.

Yet at the same time, it remains one of the top countries that practice the tightest Internet surveillance and censorship as evaluated by Freedom House in 2017 and has also been named one of the top five state enemies of the Internet around the world by Reporter Sans Frontiers.

Obviously, the government and its supporters have frequently complained that the international human rights associations were biased with their reports and not treating Vietnam fairly.

So, is Vietnam’s free press free, as claimed by its government?

One of the latest administrative decisions from the country’s Ministry of Information and Communications (MIC) on November 14, 2017, could shed some light on the answer.

The MIC-issued order effectively prohibited the online magazine Nguoi Quan Ly (The Manager), from engaging in any and all publication activities for three months, due to an article it had published in relation to the anti-corruption campaign in Binh Phuoc Province dated August 21, 2017. Further, the magazine was also fined 40 million VND (approximately 1,800.00 USD) for this piece and had to immediately and permanently remove such article.

The offending article is entitled “Binh Phuoc: Newspapers are standing on the sidelines of the campaign to prevent and fight against corruption?”

Given the fact that Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) has long been tooting his image as a leader with a staunch stand on fighting corruption, it could be a bit confusing for some in trying to understand as to why Nguoi Quan Ly received quite a harsh fine for that particular article.

But it is also this very call to fight corruption from the VCP that apparently had caused Nguoi Quan Ly such an agonizing fate.

Corruption is one of the more sensitive issues to the Vietnamese government because it could carry the most detrimental effect on the VCP’s legitimacy. And in Vietnam, it is the VCP’s leadership that counts, not the civic government. Thus, the VCP has to defend its own legitimacy at any costs, and writings on the topic of corruption must be strictly monitored. In other words, the press should write about corruption as being directed by the VCP’s orders.

Understanding the Party’s ultimate goal of keeping an impeccable image in the eyes and minds of its people, would further help us understand why the press in Vietnam cannot be free, as long as the VCP retains its leadership role.

With plenty of traditional newspapers, as well as online magazines and news sites in Vietnam, none of them could really be free to write as they please. Instead, all of them are only allowed to write as instructed by the directives and missives they receive from the VCP’s Central Propaganda Department, not just on sensitive issues like corruption but apparently all issues.

It has been an old joke in the country that Vietnam has many newspapers, but only one editor-in-chief, the Chief of the VCP’s Central Propaganda Department.

Nguoi Quan Ly online magazine was shut down for three months and had to pay a hefty fine because the published article could probably be construed as a direct attack on the Central Propaganda Department’s authorities.

In the offending article, the magazine criticized the Binh Phuoc’s Provincial Office of the Central Propaganda Department for hindering the media and journalists’ efforts in covering stories about corruption in the area, in particular, by the issuance of Missive No. 598-CV/BTGTU.

According to Nguoi Quan Ly’s article, Missive No. 598-CV/BTGTU effectively ordered all media in the area to write only about “positive” results of the VCP’s fight against corruption. In other words, they were supposed to report only on how great the government had been in carrying out those anti-graft campaigns.

The article further stated, if one was to follow Missive No. 598-CV/BTGTU, then it would mean he/she would not be able to raise any potential issues regarding the probable government’s wrongdoings, any incidents of corruption in the area, or present their investigation on the potentially corrupted officials. Instead, they could only praise the government and its officials on a great job that they had done with the anti-graft campaign. Therefore, the article continued to argue, the missive was in direct conflict with the VCP’s own anti-corruption mission as detailed by the Politburo.

The article did not state any other information, except quoting and analyzing the contents of Missive No. 598-CV/BTGTU. But that was enough for the MIC to penalize it with a high fine and shut it down for three months.

Speaking to BBC-Vietnamese edition, journalist Mai Quoc An said he could not understand why Nguoi Quan Ly was penalized so harshly for this particular article, as they were just reporting the correct contents of Missive No. 598-CV/BTGTU. On his Facebook account, An also published a photograph of the very missive, so that netizens could see its contents themselves and compared to what Nguoi Quan Ly had written.

From An’s Facebook account, we also learned that the entire editorial board, writers, and staff of Nguoi Quan Ly had resigned from their positions on November 16, 2017, two days after the administrative sanction became public. That, however, is a rare form of defiance from Vietnam’s mainstream media in situations like this.

What more often seen is that when faced with an administrative order penalizing them for exercising their rights under freedom of the press, none of the newspapers or their writers would fight back. They all rather accepted the sanctions, paid the fines, and lived with the reality that their publication may very well be closed indefinitely after the sanctioning period due to the competitive nature of the field.

An also told BBC that he believed no one had ever challenged the validity of these administrative decisions in court. An is no stranger to this method of controlling the press in Vietnam. He used to work for Sai Gon Tiep Thi, a popular magazine that was forced to close its operation in early 2014 after 19 years of publication. Many suspected that Sai Gon Tiep Thi was closed down because it was deemed to have gotten too close to the VCP’s comfort in writing more and more about issues, which the Party considered to be, highly sensitive political matters.

While the decision to fine Nguoi Quan Ly obviously did not spell out the exact reasons and instead stated that the offending article “contained misleading information which led to serious consequences”, once we compared the contents of the offending article to that of Missive No. 598-CV/BTGTU, the MIC seemed to have failed at their reasoning.

If anything, this latest round of investigating and monetary fining publications (along with Nguoi Quan Ly, at least two other newspapers were fined for their articles) by the MIC indirectly reaffirmed the fact that free press in Vietnam after all, does not stand a chance to be free. One is only free to write as long as he or she keeps in line with the orders and missives of the Central Propaganda Department and the VCP.

It is the so-called centralized democracy which operates the VCP, that also dictates an absolute obedience to the Party in many aspects of society, especially those that related to the news and media. And as such, newspapers like Nguoi Quan Ly was penalized not because their articles contain untruths or misleading information, but because they showed the slightest sight of disobeying the orders of the VCP and its Central Propaganda Department.

Vietnamese journalists and reporters, after all, does have a duty to “protect the platforms, ideology, and policies of the Party,” according to the country’s Press Law 2016, which took effect on January 1, 2017.

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Freedom Of Speech In Vietnam: Where Government Is The Boss

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Photo: Loan Pham/Vietnam Thoi Bao

In ASEAN, there are still stories of the independent media that will give us inspiration and encouragement. Here are the two examples of those stories.

First story

Two years ago, a tuk-tuk took a group of international journalists along alleys full of twists and turns in Chiang Mai, Thailand, before stopping in front of a private radio station. 

Uncle Sangmuang Mangkorn, the colleague and guide, then gave the journalists a tour around the radio station and showed us the facilities of MAP Radio. 

MAP stands for the Migrant Assistance Programme, and it is a foundation that runs several community radio stations in support of migrant workers in Chiang Mai and Mae Sot.

Most people have a preconception of radio stations being quite large and full of modern equipment and technology. Yet, the MAP Radio office is far from this ideal. Inside were just two small transmitting rooms and two employees working on a live program. This was all they had.

Warmly referred to as “Uncle” Sangmuang, he and some of his close friends founded MAP Radio in 1966 when an influx of Myanmar migrants came to Chiang Mai to work at construction sites. Myanmar workers frequently got into trouble in Thailand, and they had no avenues available to access information that would be essential for the duration of their stay. MAP Radio operates both as a radio station focusing on labor rights, health, education and an organization to help and campaign for migrant workers. MAP Radio also broadcasts in some of the workers’ mother tongues.

A recording room at MAP Radio – Migrant Assistance Programme. Photo: MAP Radio/Facebook

Second Story

In 2018, Malaysiakini, a 4-language online newspaper in Malaysia, issued a publication concerning deaths in police stations. The paper discovered that only one-fourth of these deaths captured public attention. Hence, the paper created a separate web page to gather information about these deaths, teach basic ways to protect oneself from abuse by authorities, and share the experiences of victims under arrest.

In 2021, Malaysiakini was fined RP $500,000 (more than USD $120,000) by a court in Malaysia on charges that readers’ comments on its website resulted in a decline of public trust in the judiciary system. Immediately after the court’s ruling, Malaysiakini called on its readers to make donations to help it pay the fine. Within a few hours, they had collected more than the amount needed.

Compared to the rest of Southeast Asia and the world, freedom of speech and free press in Vietnam has a quite different fate.

Vietnam: When the government acts as the big boss

In 2018, a Vietnamese activist, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for collecting information about unexplained deaths in police stations. After spending two years in jail, she was exiled to the United States for political reasons.

Fast forward towards the year 2020, it was a terrible one for the press in Vietnam as mainstream media continued to operate under government control. 

Vietnam’s independent press development has taken a step backward during the past two years. We now do not have Bao Sach (The Clean Newspaper) anymore because its founding members have been arrested in late 2020 and early 2021. 

Three members of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam, journalist Pham Doan Trang, land rights activist Can Thi Theu, and her two sons, together with many others, were also detained in 2020 and 2021. At some of their trials, heavy sentences were handed out. 

Vietnam imprisoned all of them for speaking out against abuses by the government and participating in activities that displeased the authorities.

In a few months, Chung Hoang Chuong, the owner of a SIM card shop in Ninh Kieu Town, Can Tho, will complete his 18-month sentence. He was arrested in early 2020 for posting comments concerning the Dong Tam incident. The final post on his Facebook account attracted around 1,400 comments, many of which criticized him for his daring anti-state viewpoints.

The government uses penal charges against people who exercise their right of freedom of speech in Vietnam when it feels that that such speech negatively affects the interests of the Vietnamese Communist Party. In these charges, the authorities always regarded the Party’s interests as the people’s; when the Party’s interests are compromised, so are the people’s.

From left, Pham Chi Dung, Nguyen Tuong Thuy, and Le Huu Minh Tuan – three members of the Vietnamese Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam, convicted according to Article 117 of the Penal Code. Photo: Luat Khoa.

The VCP always regurgitates the idea that the people are masters of Vietnam. But in reality, the Party and the government behave like they are the bosses of the people. At a moment’s notice, they are ready to punish a particular civilian if he/she criticizes them. Here, the VCP shows its true colors; party leaders are the true masters of the land and not a government whose primary responsibility is to serve the people.

In a particular business, the owner has the right to punish or dismiss some workers since he holds ownership of the company. However, Vietnam is not owned by the Party; ownership of this land belongs to us, the people.

In Myanmar, the military regime has controlled the country for a long time. Following the transfer to a civilian government, the military, by default, accounts for 25 percent of seats in the National Assembly. Nonetheless, the central and local governments should be run by civilian leaders.

The political system in Vietnam is similar, if not worse, than the situation in  Myanmar; replace the term “Myanmar junta” with “one-party regime” to see these similarities. The National Assembly, the courts, the People’s Procuracy, and the central and local authorities are under the control of VCP members. Even in elections, the Party handpicks candidates to ensure the Party’s continued existence and dominance. Such an administration leaves the people with no other option than obedience.

Side effects of controlling the press

Have you ever wondered how one gets daily news and information about Vietnam? He or she may listen to the radio in the morning, reads online papers in the afternoon, and watches TV or follows social media after work in the evening. In Vietnam, except for social media platforms, all other sources of information are controlled by the State.

A civilian reads a Party newspaper in Hanoi. Photo: AFP.

Imagine for a moment that you live in a neighborhood where residents can buy groceries at only one store. Whatever the store is selling will decide what you eat each day. If the commodities are plentiful and diverse, your family can be assured that they will receive proper nutrition. However, if what is being sold is neither nutritious nor varied, you are left with no other choice than to accept what the store has available. In other words, your family’s health and yours depend entirely on what the store owner has for sale.

Now, let’s visualize that there are lots of stores in your neighborhood. In case you dislike what’s available in one, you can go to another instead. Better products will be available to you since competition exists among the stores to provide the best goods and services. They respect your demands because satisfying their customers’ needs means they get more enormous profits.

Controlling the press is similar to allowing people to do their shopping at only one store. For decades, Vietnamese authorities have dictated what people should know and what they should not;  they have decided which media outlets are permitted to operate, how they should function, and which types of news are not allowed to be released. This whole mechanism determines what information you can get and how you can obtain it.

Thus, the responsibility falls on an independent press to become the best way for information to reach the people. An ordinary civilian has no time to look into matters that don’t personally affect his or her life. Take, for example, the suspicious construction of toll booths, a stretch of forest cleared and made into a golf course, the sale of counterfeit medicines, corrupt government officials, the misallocation of the national budget, and the troubles in reforming the education system. For all these things to reach the ears of the masses, we need the involvement of the free press. Only when journalists are free from the risk of persecution and imprisonment can they provide this critical information.

Regrettably, each of us has been forced to do our shopping at the only one store for a tremendously long time. Even worse, we dare not speak about our need for information because it is too dangerous. Some of us do not even know what information we need in the first place.

Without proper access to information, the people are robbed of their right to make counter-arguments, and they become increasingly less and less able to make their voices heard. Eventually, they relinquish their own land’s mastership and become puppets of those who hold the strings.


This article was written in Vietnamese by Tan Thanh and was previously published in the Luat Khoa Magazine on April 24, 2021.

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Vietnam: Putting Up with Facebook

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Photo courtesy: PIN

This article was originally published in SEAPA.org on June 3, 2019. As Facebook recently announced that it would agree to significantly increase censorship of “anti-state” posts for Vietnamese users, according to Reuters, we would think this article is providing a glimpse of how life is for an independent news media in Vietnam while we have to deal with both Facebook and the government for our right to publish stories. Please note that the stories and incidents provided in here happened in 2018 and 2019.

***

“No, no. I think Facebook is worse than your communist government.”

That was a retort from a friend of mine, a foreign researcher on international laws on human rights, after hearing me comparing Facebook’s handling of its content restriction policies to the authoritarian ruling style of the Vietnamese regime.

“At least,” my friend continued, “Vietnam will charge an activist with a specific Penal Code, 117, 109, 331, or whatever, for writing stories that it disapproves of. From what you are saying, you don’t even know why Facebook deleted your articles. That is even more arbitrary.”

He made his comments as a joke. But he actually may have a point — a good one at that.

We had been talking on the phone, and I was venting that Facebook had decided to unilaterally delete four articles from the fan page of Luat Khoamagazine, an online publication that I manage with Trinh Huu Long, another Vietnamese activist. The reason? According to Facebook, the stories have violated its “community standards.”

No explanation was offered, our appeal was swiftly denied, and the decision was final. All four articles were gone a day after we posted them on Facebook.

How did we manage to offend the “community” on Facebook that it had to delete our stories that quick?

I wish that Facebook would care enough to explain to us why writing about the US-China trade war, Donald Trump’s life before he became president of the United States, and the border dispute between Vietnam and Cambodia, would be considered offensive.

The fourth and last “offending” piece, however, was a long, detailed analysis of different “isms” and why people choose certain ideologies to follow. Its removal, in particular, has caused me to believe that the requests to delete our stories must have come from the Vietnamese government. After all, discussing these issues — especially dancing around the idea that people can choose different ideologies for themselves — could only be “offending” to a regime controlled by the Communist Party in Hanoi. The one that penned a constitutional clause to designate its own political party to be the only leadership force in Vietnam’s government and society.

To add insult to injury, during the same time, Facebook allowed a comment from an Internet troll to remain on the review session of our page. The troll called us “animals that betrayed (the country and) not worth anyone’s attention.” Our report on this troll has remained unanswered to date; the hateful comment is still there, mocking us every day.

I have had to use a lot of my own speculations in piecing together what was going behind the scenes between Facebook and our government in this past year because Facebook has been keeping secret everything about its operation in Vietnam.

To start with, we do not have a country’s representative from Facebook to deal directly with civil society and independent media. Also, besides not telling the users which community standard a removed post has violated, the names of third-party firms that conduct fact-checking for Facebook in Vietnam are not disclosed. These entities, which hold such high authority to review and decide which content can be allowed and what should be deleted, function totally in the dark.

That is why dealing with Facebook this past year, at times, has felt worse than writing and publishing in defiance of an authoritarian state like Vietnam: Because we have no idea who is on the side of Facebook.

With the new cybersecurity law passed in 2018 — which took effect earlier this year, in January — I would expect that in 2019, the compliance rate from Facebook to remove contents in Vietnam will increase more drastically. Now the Vietnamese government can just say that requests that may well compromise privacy as well as freedom of expression are all supported by its “legal process” under the new law. Under the new legislation, the law enforcement’s power to make requests to service providers such as Facebook has become potentially boundless. As soon as they open an investigation, the police could start making requests for data, private and otherwise, without any warrant and without any judicial oversight.

People outside of Vietnam may wonder, why do you still use Facebook?

It is a legitimate question. My reply is, if it is solely for personal leisure, I will not use it.

But we must put Facebook and its social-media platform in the context of a country like Vietnam. In Vietnam, we do not have a real-time civic space. People cannot organize or assemble peacefully on the streets without risking arrest and imprisonment. Independent media like our Luat Khoa magazine is slandered as a product of “reactionary forces” by state publications, such as the People’s Armed Forces online news site. Our website has been blocked by the government. If we attempt to open and operate from a brick-and-mortar office, it probably will get shut down by the police within 10 minutes.

The Vietnamese government could not even tolerate the political satire stirred up by Kim Jong-un impersonator Howard X, swiftly deporting him days ahead of the summit between the North Korean leader and U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi in February 2019. It certainly would never allow the flourishing of an independent press.

And so both the activists and the public in Vietnam have turned to online activism and utilized cyberspace as our civic space. Since the first mass protests broke out in the summer of 2011 (and lasted for three months), protests have been organized on Facebook. Incidents of corruption, social problems such as child abuse, sexual harassment — these stories and more have been reported first on social media. Usually, they then become viral and then get coverage in regular news.

The online civic-space movement needs to continue and not lose its momentum. Until the day that we find another, more suitable solution, Vietnamese activists will have to engage with the people and with one another on this platform that now has over 50 million users. Yet while we continue to use Facebook, we also push for it to be transparent about its policies and business practices. We are not asking Facebook to help us with our work. We ask that it be frank and up front with us.

“Secretive,” “non-transparent,” and “unaccountable” — these are words we often use to describe our government functions. We certainly do not want to start using them for Facebook.

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Minister of Propaganda Says Vietnam’s Press Should Serve Party, Prevent “Self-Evolution”

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At a conference on “Strengthening Party-building Work in Press Organizations” last Friday, Mr. Vo Van Thuong, head of Communist Vietnam’s Central Propaganda Committee, reminded attendees that the press must serve the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and the revolution in order to function “stably” and “without error”. 

Referring to a government plan ratified earlier in the year to develop and manage press throughout the country until 2025, Thuong stated that the time for debate had passed and that strict implementation was now key. According to state media and in sentiment echoed by Thuong, the press serves as “an important channel to fight against incorrect information, fake news, news critical of the regime, and that which makes people lose trust in the Party-State.”

In his remarks at the conference, Thuong stressed the importance of ideological work in press organizations and making sure Party cadres and Party members guard against signs of political, ideological, and moral decay. In particular, Thuong warned against signs of “self-development” and “self-evolution”, negative terms that refer to the shift towards liberal democratic values–values which are anathema to the ruling Communist Party.

In this vein, Thuong took to admonishing journalists who lacked “proper training” and were critical of society but not sufficiently critical of themselves. He also stressed the importance of proper training for leadership and suggested greater oversight of the Party committees and organizations involved in press organizations, particularly when it comes to adherence to Party regulations.

“In order to help press organizations develop self-awareness and a more proper nature, we should do as a number of comrades have stated: ‘Sometimes those who educate [Party members and cadres] must themselves be educated’,” Thuong stated.

Thuong reminded attendees that Vietnam’s journalists were journalists of the revolution, journalists of the Party, and journalists of the state; as such, they should work closely with the Central Propaganda Committee, the Ministry of Information and Communication, various central Party committee blocs, and the Vietnamese Journalists Association, in order to strengthen the leadership of the Party.

The plan approved April 2nd of this year also seeks to streamline Communist Vietnam’s press environment, limiting government bodies to one newspaper and one magazine, with a shift to electronic rather than print forms, and with the “Vietnamese Communist Party E-Newspaper” and the Central Propaganda Committee serving as the “core” of the country’s press structure. 

Along with head of propaganda, Thuong is also currently a member of the Politburo (short for “Political Bureau”, the leading body of the Vietnamese Communist Party), and the secretary of the Central Committee (from which members of the Politburo are chosen). In the past, Thuong was deputy secretary of the Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) Standing Committee, first secretary of the Central Committee of the HCMC Communist Youth Union, and secretary of the Quang Ngai Provincial Party Committee.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Vietnam ranks 176th out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom. Although freedom of the press is guaranteed by Article 25 of the 2013 Vietnamese Constitution, Communist Vietnam is a one-party, authoritarian state that does not tolerate challenges to its power. It controls all official media, newspapers, and publishing houses in the country and regularly censors material that does not conform to sanctioned historical or political narratives.

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