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Vietnam: Free Press is Not Free

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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