Reporters Without Borders - 2003 Annual Report



Area : 333,000 sq. km.
Population : 79,175,000
Language : Vietnamese
Type of state : republic
Head of state : President Tran Duc Luong
Head of government : Prime Minister Phan Van Khai

Vietnam - 2003 Annual report

The media are under official control, though there is rivalry between them. The state is in the hands of the ruling Communist Party, which stepped up repression of dissidents, especially journalists, who use the Internet to put out their news.

During celebrations to mark Revolutionary Press Day in June 2002, the official daily Nhan Dan said the Communist Party would "never allow" privately-owned media since "without control by the Party and government, the media are no longer by and for the people." Vietnamese-language publications are all run by various institutions, such as the Communist Party, the army, the official news agency and town governments. But there is much rivalry between them.

At the beginning of the year, the media played a big part in exposing a racket involving underworld figure Nam Cam and dozens of regime officials and police. A few weeks after the first articles appeared, the Party stopped the media coverage. A former head of the government paper Nha Bao Cong Luan was punished for carrying articles in favour of Nam Cam.

The government also controls the broadcasting media and tries to curb the growth of illegal satellite receiver dishes in the cities. But it encourages the growth of cable TV, which allows some Vietnamese to watch foreign entertainment programmes.
The authorities reject all requests for publishing licences from dissidents or independent organisations. Retired Gen. Tran Do, a respected revolutionary hero and dissident, died in August without ever getting permission to start up a newspaper.

Following the Chinese example, Internet access is tightly controlled. During the year, police were ordered to monitor the 4,000 cybercafés used by nearly 600,000 people to go online. Access is blocked to websites considered "reactionary," especially those run by exiled dissidents. Five cyber-dissidents were in prison at the end of the year, during which one of them received a 12-year sentence.

Journalists imprisoned

Dissident journalist Nguyen Dinh Huy has been in jail since 17 November 1993. He was sentenced in April 1995 to 15 years in prison for trying to "overthrow the people's government" and for being a founder-member of the Movement for People's Unity and Building Democracy, which has campaigned for press freedom. Aged nearly 70, he was being held at Camp Z30A, in Dong Nai province. He was a journalist in the former South Vietnam and was banned from working as a journalist after the war ended in 1975. He was transferred in early November 2002 from a cell to a small one-room hut with a window in the camp grounds. A few days later, he was allowed to receive his wife there for an hour without having to go to the official visitors' room and without a camp guard present.

Reporters Without Borders considers that house arrest is still detention. The authorities use these administrative measures to stop journalists communicating and working.

Journalist and dissident Bui Minh Quoc was put under house arrest at his home in the southern city of Dalat on 12 January after being detained at the railway station in the Hanoi suburb of Thanh Tri four days earlier. He was interrogated for three days by police who seized from him more than 300 documents considered "reactionary." The day before, he had met a group of Hanoi dissidents.
But a Vietnamese journalist exiled in France said he had been punished for spending more than a month investigating the situation in the region near the Chinese border. Dissidents regularly condemn territorial and other concessions the government has made to China. Bui had travelled round the region on a motorcycle doing interviews and police seized notebooks and film from his trip. He belonged to a dissident group in Dalat and was put under house arrest from April 1997 until the end of 1999 for campaigning for press freedom. He was not allowed to leave his neighbourhood or meet anyone without official permission. His phone was cut off, police guarded his house and his family was watched.

Nguyen Xuan Tu, known under his pen-name of Ha Sy Phu, has been under house arrest in Dalat since 8 February 2001 under government decree 31/CP, announced four days later by the police newspaper Cong An Nhan Dan, which said he had "been in contact with reactionaries abroad with the aim of sabotaging Vietnam." The move came amid government repression of demonstrations in the southern mountainous region. He had been arrested and imprisoned in December 1995 for more than a year for allegedly disclosing "state secrets." He was freed after an international campaign. A former biologist, he was one of the leaders of a dissident group in Dalat that started a magazine called Langbian.
He was freed on 4 January 2001 but with his re-arrest on 8 February, he has only had five weeks of freedom in the past seven years. He was harassed daily by police, with searches of his house, pressure on his family and a ban on visits. His computer was seized during a police search on 7 January 2002.

Pressure and obstruction

Deputy culture and information minister Nguyen Khac Hai issued a decree on 8 January 2002 ordering police to seize and destroy any publication that had not been checked by the government. The BBC reported that the memoirs of the well-known dissident, retired Gen. Tran Do, and print-outs of pages from the dissident Internet news website Dialogue were the main targets of the decree.

On 15 January, police burned 7.6 tonnes of allegedly pornographic or subversive books and magazines seized throughout the country over the previous year. They included material put out by exiled dissident organisations.

On 30 January, the authorities lifted a nearly year-long ban on foreign journalists going to the Central Highlands, where rioting had taken place a year earlier, and on 18 February a first group of foreign journalists was allowed in. But the foreign ministry barred the French news agency Agence France-Presse, saying it had failed to sign up in time, even though the agency said it had made a request before the press trip was announced. The ministry refused to give advance details of the trip or say how long it would last.

In early April, the Communist Party banned all documents, books, newspapers and other publications containing "bad or inaccurate" news. It said party officials and the culture and information ministry would review laws on importing and exporting cultural material and would jam reception of Vietnamese-language radio programmes put out by "foreign reactionaries" on stations such as the US-funded Radio Free Asia.

In mid-June, Prime Minister Pham Van Khai banned Vietnamese from watching foreign satellite TV programmes. Only top government and Party officials, were allowed to, along with provincial governors and mayors. Foreign businesses and news agencies and international hotels could also install receiving equipment. People wanting to import receiver dishes would have to get permission from the trade ministry.

The move came soon after a wave of articles in the local press attacking some foreign TV programmes as "harmful." A week earlier, Nguyen Khoa Diem, head of the Party's ideology and culture commission, had pointed out that the media had to "strictly obey the Party leadership." In major centres such as Ho Chi Minh City, many receivers dishes have been put up illegally.

Nguyen Khoa Diem also announced on 20 June that the media could no longer report freely on a corruption scandal involving a racketeer and dozens of top officials and police. The national press had played a big part in uncovering the scandal, which led to about 100 arrests. He said in an interview with the justice ministry newspaper Phap Luat that the media must not "reveal secrets, create internal division or obstruct the key role of propaganda." Some reports said revelation of the scandal was part of a power struggle inside the Party.
Hanoi police on 9 July destroyed video and audio tapes, 3,000 books and six kilos of publications seized since March as part of a campaign against "harmful cultural material." Police in Ho Chi Minh City destroyed more than 7,000 kilos of banned publications.

The culture and information ministry blocked the Internet website on 7 August for posting news items that violated the press law by "distorting the truth" and not having prior authorisation. The ministry's information chief said the site indulged in "sensational journalism." Official sources told Agence France-Presse that the move was aimed at the site's forum, where topics discussed included the country's 1999 territorial concessions to China, corruption inside the Party and political reform. The owner of the site, voted the country's best website for youth in 2001, told AFP that young people's tastes were "sometimes completely different from those of their elders."
The management of the Hong Kong based magazine Far Eastern Economic Review, said on 8 August that the government had prevented distribution of its latest issue. The local distributor, Xunhasaba, said they were not allowed to deliver about 100 copies to be sold at news-stands. The reason was thought to be an article saying officials were considering censorship of a biography of former President Ho Chi Minh by William J. Duiker that revealed certain aspect of his private life that conflicted with the official version. The magazine's 11 July issue had also been blocked because of an article about the Nam Cam corruption scandal.

The police newspaper Cong An Nhan Dan called on 13 August for stricter control of the media, which it said were exploited by "hostile elements" and "enemies of Vietnam" who were culling "negative" news items from the state-controlled media and distorting them to influence public opinion.