Silenced Voices: Examining the Culture of Censorship and Its Consequences for Vietnamese Artists

The Vietnamese art community faces several hurdles to their right to freedom of expression.

Silenced Voices: Examining the Culture of Censorship and Its Consequences for Vietnamese Artists
Photo: Bui Chat, a Vietnamese artist who faced the closure of his art exhibit in 2022.

This article was written in Vietnamese and previously published in the Luat Khoa Magazine on August 19, 2022. Lee Nguyen and Karie Nguyen translated this into English.

In Vietnam, a few decades ago, people once had to apply for a government permit to butcher livestock or travel to another province or city. Such strange stories sound like they may have originated centuries ago, but they were part of the living reality during Vietnam's subsidy period, which lasted until the late 1980s. The middle-aged generation of the country today remembers it very well.

During Vietnam's subsidy period, "requesting to obtain permitting" was no longer a purely legal process; it became deeply ingrained into Vietnamese culture and society. Whenever Vietnamese citizens wanted to do anything, they often asked themselves if they needed their government's permission.

Of course, things today are a bit more relaxed. In fact, not only have many of these procedures been abolished, but the culture of "requesting to obtain permitting" is no longer so bold. However, this did not prevent the Vietnamese government from issuing Decree No. 113/2013/ND-CP on fine arts activities, with regulations on applying for permits to organize exhibitions. [1]

Everyone, from public authorities to the masses, implicitly understands that this law is mandatory for all public art exhibitions, but this understanding is not quite legally correct.

Decree No. 113: Requiring Permission is Vague and Unclear

Article 8 on prohibited acts under Decree 113 does not prohibit the organization of art exhibitions for the public.

It also does not stipulate that organizing public art exhibitions requires permission from the authorities.

However, it strangely requires mandatory standards for applying for exhibition venues, the authority to license exhibition permits, and the dossiers and procedures for granting them.

In short, Decree 113 does not prohibit public art exhibitions and does not compel artists to apply for permission. Still, it does regulate the procedure for applying for a license and makes that procedure mandatory.

Decree 113 is ambiguous, and it remains unclear if government consent is required for art exhibits to operate.

In other words, no legal codes regulate this matter of art exhibitions. Thus, public authorities do not have any legal basis to force people to ask for government permission, and therefore, people have no obligation to comply. The Vietnamese government can only do what the law allows, and the populace can do what the regulations do not forbid.

Decree No. 38: Baseless Penalties

In promulgating legal documents in Vietnam, a decree stipulates the rights, obligations, and licensing procedures of concerned parties in each corresponding field. At the same time, another document is released that lists administrative sanctions and penalties related to the first decree.

The legal document corresponding to Decree No. 113 is Decree No. 38/2021/ND-CP on prescribing penalties for administrative violations involving cultural and advertising activities. [2] It states that "organizing an art exhibition without a license as prescribed" will be administratively sanctioned.

However, the problem with Decree No. 38 is that no specific regulation necessitates government consent in organizing art exhibitions; its partner document, Decree No. 113, is unclear on whether or not permission is required.

And if the regulations are unclear, how does the Vietnamese government determine which penalties to apply?

Do Art Exhibits Need Government Permission to Operate?

The issue of whether artists need to seek permission for public art exhibitions in Vietnam raises fundamental questions about freedom of expression and the justifications for restricting such rights. Underpinning the country’s legal framework are principles that acknowledge individuals' inherent freedom, suggesting that limitations must have reasonable and justifiable grounds.

The display of artworks in public spaces intersects with ownership rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly - essential human rights that demand compelling reasons for any government ban or restriction. What, then, are the potential rationales behind mandatory art exhibition permits in Vietnam? If someone paints a picture and presents it to the public, do they need to apply for permission in Vietnam?

The need for permission may arise if the government deems that art exhibitions could impact the rights and interests of other individuals or organizations, as well as the broader public interest. Certain criteria come into play to determine whether explicit government consent is necessary.

The first criterion revolves around physical space. Permission may be required if an art exhibition occurs in public areas like sidewalks, streets, parks, or security-sensitive zones near borders or military installations. However, permission is generally not mandated in privately-owned spaces, as the government's reach ends at people's doorsteps, except for exceptional cases.

The second criterion involves safety and security. Even in private spaces, permission may be required during martial law, war, or epidemics.

Thus, the instances requiring permission appear sporadic, with citizens typically retaining the right to display paintings without seeking government approval. Unfortunately, this is not the reality in Vietnam. The Vietnamese government should minimize interference in civil activities and avoid creating unnecessary legal barriers that hinder people from exercising their rights. Instead of actively restricting citizens, the government's role should focus on safeguarding public spaces from illicit activities such as theft, assault, or vandalism.

Nevertheless, applying the Decree governing art exhibitions in Vietnam demonstrates the government's interpretation of it as obligatory, necessitating permission for all art displays, regardless of the venue. Failure to comply may result in fines and administrative penalties.

The prevailing status quo indicates that citizens lack the right to hold art exhibitions unless authorized by the state, contradicting the fundamental principles of a legal system that purports to respect freedom and human rights. It is imperative for the Vietnamese government to reevaluate its approach, striking a balance between preserving artistic freedom and maintaining societal order.


1. (2013). Nghị định 113/2013/NĐ-CP hoạt động mỹ thuật.

2. (2021). Nghị định 38/2021/NĐ-CP xử phạt vi phạm hành chính trong lĩnh vực văn hóa quảng cáo.

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