Violations of Freedom of Expression and Information

In Vietnam Today


Updated in August 2004

by Dr. Lam Thu Van

Democracy for Vietnam / Montreal

Campaign for Freedom of Expression and Information in Vietnam


I.  Introduction

    1.In the last 15 years, Viet Nam has adopted a policy of openness to prop up the country’s chaotic economy and gear itself to international standards. Still, until this year of 2003, Viet-Nam has remained one of the poorest countries in the world, and it is continuing to seek assistance, especially humanitarian aid and economic investment, from the international community.

        The obstacles to development in Viet-Nam are deeply rooted in the lack of institutions of a civil society and a decision-making process via free media and free elections. For its political expediencies, the Vietnamese government ignores the crucial role of freedom of expression and information in sustainable development.

    2. In principles, freedom of expression and information is officially provided for in the Vietnamese Constitution.

        a. Article 69 of the Vietnamese Constitution guarantees to all citizens freedoms of expression, association, and assembly.

"All citizens have the rights to enjoy freedoms of expression, of the press, of assembly as well as to form associations."

         b. In 1982, as a state member of the United Nations, Viet Nam ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. As such, Viet-Nam is expected to implement this covenant with particular adherence to Article 19: "Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference." And  "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any media of his choice."

    3. In reality, Viet-Nam denies to its citizens the right to free expression of opinions by all media, including the press, television, broadcast radio, the Internet, artistic activities.


II. Varied Ways of Oppressions of Freedom of Information and Expression


A.      Oppressions of All Forms of Information and Expression:

         The Vietnamese government often circumvent the Vietnamese Constitution with the issuance of decrees or directives, mainly press laws aimed at tightening its control over dissident voices. The following examples are illustrations of the harsh reality of repression behind the "nice-looking" of the government.

       1 – Control of the Internet.

            There are about 5000 internet-cafes in Viet-Nam, operated under the joint control of the Ministry of Culture and Information and the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications. Approximately 2000 websites are blocked, apparently for alleged disseminating "subversive" or "reactionary" messages.

     On May 26, 2003, the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications issued Decree 92/2003/QD-BBCVT to regulate the use and access of the Internet. Article 2 of the decree prohibits Internet users to send or receive «anti-government materials».

      On June 27, 2002, a circular from the Ministry of Culture and Information instructs owners of Internet cafes to monitor customers’ online activities in order to prevent them from accessing «state secrets» or «reactionary documents» (AFP, June 27, 2002).

      On August 5, 2002, the Director of Post and Telecommunication asked all provincial and municipal authorities to severely punish Internet users caught spreading dissent online (AFP August 5, 2002).

      On August 5, 2002, TTV Online, one of the most popular youth oriented Website was shut down for «violating press laws», TTV Online posted on its forum page comments concerning Vietnamese-Sino border treaties, corruption scandals, and demands for political reform (AFP, August 7, 2002).

         2.  Control of the press

               a. Domestic press: Over 500 newspapers and magazines, none privately-owned, are currently in circulation in Vietnam, and all are subject to tight censorship.

      On July 15, 2003, the Sinh Vien Viet Nam Weekly, a youth magazine for Vietnamese college students, sponsored by the French government’s program of upgrading Vietnamese press professionalism, was suspended for three months by the Ministry of Culture and Information for publishing “offensive illustrations”. The ban may be extended by the Vietnamese Communist Party’s ideology Commission. The cover of the July 7, 2003 issue features the two statuettes of a naked man and a woman, and last year’s May 20 issue prints a Ho Chi Minh bank note floating in a toilet bowl (Reporters Sans Frontières, July 17, 2003).

      For 2003, the Ministry of Culture and Information refused to renew the press credentials of the three editors at the Tuoi Tre (Vietnamese Youth) Newspaper, for publicizing the findings of a survey of youth idols. In the survey U.S. President Bill Clinton scored higher than Prime Minister Phan Van Khai. The government destroyed 120.000 copies of the offending edition. (Human Right Watch 2003 Report)

      In May 1999, the Ministry of Culture and Information amended press laws in order to tighten its control on domestic media. It states: “The role of journalists is to propagate the official line of the Vietnamese Communist Party and the government.”. Journalists must pay fines if their reports disclose matters harmful to the government, regardless of whether the reports are true or false. (Reuters, May 20, 1999)

      On June 20, 2002, Mr. Nguyen Khoa Diem, VCP’s Cultural Commissioner, ruled that the media not report first hand on corruption cases on grounds that they may “expose state secrets and create internal division.” (CPJ Appeal, July 2, 2002)

              b. Foreign Reporters and Magazines: Censorship applies also to foreign reporters and imported magazines. In April 2000, Sylvaine Pasquier, reporter with the French weekly L’Express, was questioned by the police and immediately expelled from Viet-Nam the next day when she tried to visit Dr. Nguyen Dan Que for an interview  (L’Express, April 20, 2000).

      Armand Dubus, Bangkok correspondent of the French newspaper “Liberation” was interrogated by the police and ordered to leave Viet-Nam within 24 hours. His books and computers disks were confiscated. Apparently Mr. Dubus met dissidents and inquired into religious freedom (Reporters sans Frontières, annual report 2001).

      The July 11, 2002 issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review was forbidden for sale in Vietnam because of an article on corruption scandals. The 8 August 2002 issue of the same publication was also banned because of an article on Ho Chi Minh’s life (AFP, August 8, 2002).  .

      No foreign and domestic reporters were allowed to visit and report first hand on the ethnic minority protests in February 2001 in the Central Highlands. They were also not allowed to enter the court hall to cover the trials of Catholic priest Nguyen Van Ly, Le Chi Quang, Nguyen Khac Toan, Pham Hong Son, Nguyen Vu Binh and Nguyen Dan Que –these six Internet users, with dissenting views, being accused of  “espionage”.

         3. Banning and Confiscating books and publications, videotapes, compact disks, and artistic activities.

          On June 8, 2002, the Vice-Minister of Culture and Information instructed the police to confiscate and destroy publications lacking official approval. On June 16, 2002, over seven tons of books were burned in Ho Chi Minh City. Destroyed publications include Doi Thoai 2000, Doi Thoai 2001 (Dialog 2000, Dialog 2001) by Tran Khue and Nguyen Thi Thanh Xuan, Nhat Ky (Diary) by Tran Do, Suy Tu Va Uoc Vong (Meditations and Aspirations) by Nguyen Thanh Giang, Gui Lai Truoc Khi Ve Coi ( A few words before dying) by Vu Cao Quan, and other books by outspoken dissident writers. On July 9, 2002, Hanoi police destroyed 40,780 compact disks, 810 videotapes, and 3000 books  (Human Rights Watch report 2003).

      On September 18, 2002, the Ministry of Culture and Information announced that Jimmy Nguyen, a popular Vietnamese-American singer, would be banned to perform again in Viet-Nam after he had given, without police permission, two concerts at nightclubs in Hanoi and Hai Phong. (AFP, September 18, 2002 ).

       In September 2002, the government confiscated Vietnamese actor Don Duong’s passport in reprisal of his starring in two recently released American films which were banned in Viet-Nam, “We Were Soldiers Once” and “Green Dragon”. Ho Chi Minh City authorities banned Don Duong from traveling overseas and acting in all movies for 5 years (AFP September 18, 2002).

          4. Censorship of radio and television broadcasts

           There is no privately-owned radio and television stations and programs in Viet-Nam. Washington, DC based Radio Free Asia’s Vietnamese programs and the Christian radio broadcasts in the H’mong language of the Far East stationed in the Philippines are regularly jammed. Listeners to these broadcasts were harassed and, in most cases, severely punished.  In June 2001, Mr. Nguyen Duy Tam, a RFA listener in An Giang province in the Mekong Delta, was arrested and sentenced to two-year house arrest for recording RFA radio broadcast programs. His recorded tapes were confiscated (June 2001, Reporters Sans Frontières, Annual Report 2001).

      French language TV 5 programs are also censored.

      According to a directive issued June 24, 2002, only top-ranking government and party officials as well as foreigners are allowed to watch international satellite television in Viet-Nam. Vietnamese officials include Cabinet ministers, vice-ministers, governors, vice-governors, city mayors and vice-mayors. Hotels serving international guests are permitted to install satellite television equipment (AP June 24, 2002).


B.      Legalization of Oppression:

       1. Administration Detention Decree: The Vietnamese government systematically utilizes administrative detention to repress freedom of expression and information.

          Under Decree 31/CP, cyber dissidents and dissident writers have been imprisoned without trial or condemned to harsh sentences by kangaroo courts, or put under house arrest. This 31/CP decree, issued April 14, 1997 by then Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet, allows security agents at village levels to detain without trial, up to 2 years, individuals suspected of “threatening national security”. Persons subjected to this administrative detention are not allowed to travel and to work, denied access of all communication tools including the telephone, mail, email, and personal visits.

         Two-year preventive house arrest or local supervision, provided for under Decree 31/CP, applies automatically to all prisoners after their release from jail. The two-year period may be extended according to the evaluation of local authorities.

       2. The Penal Code of Viet-Nam, with its ambiguous wording, does not differentiate between dissidents who use violence and those who are involved in peaceful activities advocating basic rights stipulated in the Vietnamese Constitution. Article 73 of the Penal Code sentences, from 12 years’ imprisonment to death penalty, individuals charged with “threatening national security” or “attempting to overthrow the government”. Article 80 stipulates the same range of penalties to persons accused of «espionage». Article 88 sentences from 3 to 20 years of imprisonment those who are charged with “propaganda activities against the socialist government of Vietnam”

       3. Other laws and regulations are passed to tighten the control of the press and the internet (Press Law, Internet Resources Administration Regulation (Regulation 92/2003, May 26.2003).

        4. As the judiciary branch is not independent, judges set sentences based on the recommendations or explicit instructions of Vietnamese Communist Party’s leaders. Trials of political prisoners are always closed, and quite often without the counsel of independent attorneys. The public, the media, and even the relatives and friends of defendants are not allowed to attend the trials.


III. Cases of Oppression:

     Following is the list of well documented cases of journalists, writers, democracy advocates and human rights activists who were detained or harassed because of their writings. They represent only tips of the iceberg :

   A. Serving lengthy sentences in hard labor camps.

  1. Professor and writer Nguyen Dinh Huy has been serving, since 1995, a 15-year imprisonment sentence in Camp Z 30 A in Xuan Loc, Dong Nai province, for planning to organize a conference on “development and democracy» in Ho Chi Minh City in 1993. He was the founder of the Phong Trao Thong Nhat Dan Toc va Xay Dung Dan Chu (Movement for National Unity and Democracy) and a honorary member of International PEN.


  1. Cyber dissident Nguyen Khac Toan has been serving a 12-years sentence at the Ba Sao hard labor camp, Nam Ha province, since December 20, 2002, for posting on the Internet his reports on December 2001 peasants’ protests against corruption at local government buildings as well as at the National Assembly.
  2. Physician and cyber dissident Pham Hong Son has been serving a 13- year imprisonment sentence since June 18, 2003, for posting on the Internet essays and open letters advocating democracy. He circulated on the Internet his Vietnamese translation of an article entitled “What is democracy?” which is posted on the website of the US Embassy in Vietnam. Under international pressure, the Vietnam’s Suprem Court on August 26 2003 reduced Pham Hong Son’s prison term to 5 years. Dr. Pham Hong Son is a recipient of the 2003  Hellman-Hammett Award.
  3. Journalist and cyber-dissident Nguyen Vu Binh has been detained in confinement since his arrest on September 25, 2002. He was sentenced to 7 years’imprisonment by the Hanoi People Court on December 31, 2003 for advocating democracy in his essays posted on the Internet. On May 5, 2004, the Hanoi Appeal Court upheld his sentence, threrefore Nguyen Vu Binh went on hunger strike to protest the unfair trial. He founded the Dang Tu Do Dan Chu (Freedom and Democracy Party) in February 2000. Mr. Binh was invited by U.S. Congress to present a report on human rights conditions in Viet-Nam on 19 July 2002. Mr. Binh is a recipient of the 2002 Hellman/Hammett Award.
  4. Nguyen Dan Que, a physician, cyber-dissident, editor of an underground newsletter Tuong Lai (The Future), was arrested on his way to an Internet-cafe on March 17, 2003.  Dr. Que was sentenced by the People Court of Ho Chi Minh city on July 29, 2004, to 30 months’imprisonment on charges of «taking advantage of democracy to undermine the State». In the past, he was  imprisoned twice for a total of 18 years for protesting ill-treatment of prisoners in Vietnam, and the lack of freedom of expression and information for the civil society. He served his 18-year sentence in various hard labor camps for demanding free elections and respect for human rights. He was granted the 1994 Raoul Wallenberg Human Rights Award, the 1995 Robert Kennedy Human Rights Award, the 2002 Hellman/Hammett Award and the 2004 Heinz R. Pagels Human Rights of Scientists Award by the New York-based Academy of Sciences..


B. Writers under house arrest.


  1. Prof. Tran Van Khue (pen name Tran Khue), a well-known expert in archaic Vietnamese literature, was arrested on December 29, 2002 because of his pro-democracy writings and activities. On July 23, 2004, after 2 hours trial, the People Court of Ho Chi Minh city sentenced him to 19 months imprisonment on charges of «taking advantage of democracy  to undermine the State».On September 2, 2001, he co-founded with retired Colonel Pham Que Duong, Hoi Nhan Dan Chong Tham Nhung (Vietnamese People’s Anti-Corruption Association). Prof. Khue co-authors with Ms. Nguyen Thi Thanh Xuan the essays Doi Thoai 2000 (Dialog 2000) and Doi Thoai 2001 (Dialog 2001).  Both publications were banned in Viet-Nam because they challenge the VCP leadership on corruption issues and propose the democratization of Vietnam. He is a recipient of the 2002 Hellman/Hammett Award.
  2. Mr. Pham Que Duong, a historian and retired army officer, was arrested on December 28, 2002, apparently because of his dissident political views and his intensive campaign for democracy. On July 14, 2004, the Hanoi People Court sentenced him to 19 months’imprisonment on charges of «taking advantage of democracy to undermine the State». In September 2001, he co-founded with Tran Khue the Vietnamese People’s Anti-Corruption Association.  Mr. Duong is a recipient of the 2001 Hellman/Hammett Award.
  3. Biologist/journalist/poet Ha Si Phu published in Dalat-based Langbian magazine between the years of 1986 and 1990 many essays  questioning the legitimacy of the VCP. He served a one-year imprisonment term in 1995, and since February 2001 he has been put under house arrest.  Local authorities extended his house arrest period in February 2003 without giving any explanations. Mr. Phu is an honorary member of PEN Canada, and that of International PEN.


  1. Writer and poet Bui Minh Quoc, a contributing editor of the Dalat-based Langbian magazine, has been under house arrest since January 12, 2003. Before that, he had been put under house arrest for his writings criticizing the VCP. After his release in 2002, he was arrested on January 8, 2003 in North Vietnam while visiting the Vietnam-China border to gather information concerning Vietnam’s territorial concessions to China. He was then put under house arrest for the second time.  Mr. Quoc is an honorary member of PEN Canada and International PEN


C.      Writers subjected to constant harassment


  1. Geologist and dissident writer Nguyen Thanh Giang was arrested on March 4,  1999 and imprisoned for two months for allegedly “possessing anti-government   documents”. Since his release, he has been continuing his campaign for  democracy. He is the author of the banned book Suy Tu Va Uoc Vong (Contemplation and Aspiration). He is a member of the Vietnamese People’s  Anti-Corruption Association.  Since 1999 he has been subject to constant harassment and surveillance, including mail censure, telephone disconnection and jamming.

  1. Mr. Vu Cao Quan, a veteran of the North Vietnamese Army, authors many poems and articles advocating democracy.  He was jailed for nine days in April 2001 for organizing a seminar on democracy in Hai Phong City and ignoring police warnings against his pro-democracy activities. In January 2003, his book titled Gui lai truoc khi ve coi(A few words before dying) was confiscated and destroyed for its “reactionary contents.” Mr Vu Cao Quan is a recipient of the 2003 Hellman/Hammett Award. 

  2. Writer and researcher Nguyen Thi Thanh Xuan is an well-recognized expert in Chinese and classical Vietnamese literature. She coauthors (with Prof. Tran Khue) three books promoting political reform. They are:  «Reform in order to Survive and Develop», «Dialog 2000», and «Dialog 2001». These books were confiscated in January 2002 and banned for circulation in Viet-Nam. Ms. Thanh Xuan was arrested in Ha Noi in September 2001 while attending a meeting to discuss the creation of Vietnamese People’s Anti-Corruption Association. She has been under surveillance by Ho Chi Minh City Security, and her telephone was put out of service. Ms Nguyen Thi Thanh Xuan is a recipient of the 2003 Hellman/Hammett Award.

  3. Mr. Tran Dung Tien, a North Vietnamese Army veteran, authors many essays and open letters advocating democracy and protesting the arbitrary detention of his democracy advocate colleagues. He was arrested on January 20, 2003 and detained for 10 months. He is a member of the People’s Association against corruption.

  4. Jurist and cyber dissident Le Chi Quang was sentenced to four-year imprisonment at the Ba Sao hard labor camp, Nam Ha province for posting articles and essays on the Internet, calling for democratization. Under international pressure, Vietnamese authorities released Le Chi Quang from prison on June 12, 2004. Before and after his imprisonment, Le Chi Quang has been subject to strict surveillance from the state security office of his district. Le Chi Quang is a recipient of the 2002 Hellman/Hammett Award and the 2004 PEN Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.


IV. Conclusion and recommendations

   A. Conclusion:

       The situation of human rights in Vietnam in general, and of freedom of expression and information in particular, has been deteriorating during the last few years.  Independent, private press does not exist. Journalists, writers and artists, even on government-controlled media, are censored and/or disciplined for their independent and liberal writings. Foreign reporters and magazines are either banned or obstructed from professional activities in Vietnam. Stricter measures and regulations have been enforced to control all forms of free information and opinions exchange, either by conventional means or by electronic internet. Until nowadays all well-known dissidents have been either housed arrested or imprisoned. All dissenting voices have been suppressed.  One of the darkest periods for freedom of expression and information in Vietnam has begun right at the momentum of economic renovation. The people in Vietnam have never been so deprived of freedom of expression and information as of today.

      As long as Vietnam represses freedom of expression and obstructs the free flow of information, as illustrated in the above high-profile cases, it is unlikely to be found conforming to international standards and achieve equitable and sustainable development in the near future.

    B. Recommendations:

       In this era of globalization, Viet-Nam has no other way but to comply with all the criteria set forth by its bilateral trade partners in the European Union and North America, namely U.S. and Canada, as well as by multilateral organizations such as the United-Nations, WTO, World Bank, I.M.F., APEC, ASEAN.

      Therefore, we believe that the following recommendations should be carried out by the government of Vietnam, and the international circle should create conditions and apply pressures to assure that these reforms are implemented.

      1. Implementations by the government of Vietnam:

·         To create legal and economic conditions and opportunities for the private sector to fully participate in all areas of cultural, social and economic activity, namely industries, trades, education, health services, arts, as well as transfer of information (the press, television, radio, publication, regulation and management of the use of the Internet).

·         To stop all measures and forms of information censorship, including censorship of mail and emails, jamming radio broadcasts, putting “firewalls” to websites, limiting and controlling  access to satellite television, control of publications, imported books and magazines.

·         To release immediately all cyber-dissidents and writers imprisoned or under house arrest for advocating freedom of expression and information.

·         To commit to a free and two-way exchange of cultural products (books, magazines, literary publications, artistic works) between Vietnam and the U.S. to strengthen cultural ties between the two countries.

·         To open the service market to foreign investors and implement mechanisms of transparency in administration and management, and of protecting intellectual property rights.

·         To allow for the creation and development of NGOs and independent associations for professional workers, writers, reporters, students, women, religious groups, in order to enable them to participate fully and effectively in the development of the country.

·         Finally, in order to guarantee the success of the above reforms, Vietnam needs an independent judiciary and free and fair elections of national representatives.

       2.  Recommendations for the democratic governments and international circles:

·         To include improvement of human rights in all cooperation and assistance programs with the Vietnamese government;

·         To set up governmental and parliamentary agencies to monitor the human rights situation in Vietnam;

·         To pressure for the release of all prisoners of religion, opinion and conscience, and for the abolishment of all measures of oppression of religion, opinion and information;

·         To assure for a fair and two-way free flow of information and cultural products between Vietnam and the international community, including the oversea Vietnamese.

      3. Recommendations for the Vietnamese human rights and democracy advocates inside and outside Vietnam:

·         To create the environment and conditions favorable to the involvement of the young generations inside and outside Vietnam to the cause of human rights and democracy in Vietnam;

·         To demand for and to create conditions favorable to the free flow of information and cultural products from oversea Vietnamese community into Vietnam;

·         To engage into the process of social, economic, cultural and political changes in Vietnam.


We strongly believe that Vietnam should go through a comprehensive peaceful process of liberalization of society and democratization of the government to integrate into the international community and to become a civilized and developed country. This can only be achieved if all parties concerned –the government of Vietnam, international circles, and the oversea Vietnamese community-- engage into the process of liberalization of society and democratization of the government.