Taming the online spaces in Vietnam

Posted on May 5, 2013 in News & More | No Comments

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[Southeast Asia Press Freedom Challenges for 2013]

The maritime sovereignty dispute between Vietnam and China has continued into 2013, with the latest incident occurring on 26 March 2013 after a Chinese patrol boat fired on a Vietnamese fishing vessel. China’s use of weapons may perhaps signal a new phase in the dispute over the Paracel islands, as the regional superpower asserts control over its claimed territory over the South China Sea.

The dispute has loomed over actions of the Vietnamese government against citizens who have in recent years taken to the streets or online forums to support their country’s territorial sovereignty. The Vietnamese Communist Party appears to face a dilemma of taking the side of their people, which means expanding the space for street protests and freer online commentary against the government, that is seen as trying to maintain “comradeship” with their Chinese counterpart in breaking up protests.

Economically, the recession that has hit since 2008 has also exacerbated the situation. Comments regarding the government’s handling of the slowdown are deemed as “spreading anti-state propaganda” by the state as it views them as challenging its legitimacy.

Land disputes have become more widespread in Vietnam in 2012, as enterprises seek cooperation and support from authorities to gain access to ‘state-owned’ land for development projects. Since the land is usually occupied by small farmers, evictions occur and very often involve demonstrations and sometimes violence.

Against this backdrop, the situation of the media in Vietnam also remained unchanged over 2012 and into 2013. Mainstream media has remained compliant in the news coverage of the political and economic situation. News of protests rarely make the headlines, or if they do, then it is usually of the official point of view.

Online media, including independent blogs, discussion boards and social media, have become the alternative source for information and opinion not available or allowable in the newspapers, radio or TV. Government has continued to try to control online expression, and in doing so, has continued its crackdown on alternative media. Efforts to tame online media range from blocking or attacking websites but often involve real-life attacks when authorities send in security forces to go after persons involved.

Media law and control

Article 1 of Vietnam’s Law on the Media, introduced in 1989 and amended in 1999 provides for freedom of the media and right to freedom of speech, but within the confines Saveof the “interests of the State and the people.” Thus, control is a central principle that defines the role of the media in Vietnam. As some local journalists put it “the press is a tool” which is owned and used by the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP).

The Law on the Media goes on to define the rights and responsibilities of the media, what can be a media organization, who can be a journalist, how the state manages the media, and rewards and penalties for breaches of the law. The law applies to all media, whether printed, audio, visual or electronic, for all material, in any language in Vietnam.

Every week on Tuesdays in Hanoi, the Central Department of Propaganda holds meetings with the editors-in-chief of all major newspapers, in which they provide feedback to the media over the previous week’s reporting. Similar meetings are held in Ho Chi Minh City, and other provinces and cities across Vietnam, by the local Propaganda Department.

These meetings are described in the party under the euphemism “weekly discussions with the media”, in which the media are briefed on the handling of the party’s editorial directions and positions on sensitive issues.

Though the press is told that such meetings are to be kept secret, news on these “discussions” leak one once in a while, to be exposed to the public mainly by independent bloggers. For example, these have included warnings not to report too positively on the “Arab spring” uprisings in 2011, and a rebuke by the Propaganda Department on reports of Chinese vessels cutting cables of Vietnamese exploration ships.

State-controlled journalists

Under the media law, the state also regulates the issuance of press cards to journalists. A Vietnamese press card is granted by the Ministry of Information and Communication (MIC) to a reporter who meets a set of requirements. These requirements include “not having been rebuked in the past 12 months,” “be recommended by the media agency, the line ministry, and the journalist association.”

The MIC claims that at total of 17,000 press cards have been issued to Vietnamese citizens.

Press cards are very important since someone “who is granted a press card” is recognized in law as well as in social perception. A press card is often a condition for journalists who want to attend state-organized, high level meetings. Those without press cards are not recognized as journalists. With this requirement, the authorities can easily block non-card carrying reporters, including bloggers.

More than any other agency, the police insist that only those granted with press cards are recognized as journalists and that those without press cards are just “self-proclaimed” reporters who must not be given access to “authorized information”. This happened to blogger Huyen Trang, who also worked with the Redemptorist News, an online Catholic news service. She was detained and interrogated for nearly one day in a Ho Chi Minh City police station in October 2012 and when she told the police that she worked as a reporter, they harassed her and demanded for her press card.

Even mainstream journalists are not exempt from police harassment. In one incident on 24 April 2012, local officials of the People’s Committee held a press conference “advising” reporters not to go to the location of a land grab dispute in Van Giang (a rural district 20 kilometers southwest of Hanoi), and warned them that “we cannot guarantee your safety.”

Despite the warning a group of reporters from six national and local media agencies went to the scene. All of them confined themselves in the Commune’s Cultural House to which local officials “invited” them to get information on the dispute. However, when two reporters for The Voice of Vietnam radio (VOV) went out to shoot a video of resisting farmers, they were beaten by members of a special task force. A local farmer who tried to help them as also assaulted. A video clip of the incident was posted online by anonymous bloggers and went viral, but local officials and police alleged it was a fake by “hostile forces”. No effort was ever made to punish the attackers. For their part, the two journalists remained silent about the attack, not wanting to challenge authorities.

Using the Penal Code

In 2012, at least 52 persons were detained, prosecuted or sentenced under charges relating to “anti-state” activities in Vietnam’s Penal Code. Of these, one person was charged with “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State” (Article 258); one with “illegally using information in computer networks” (Article 226); one with “undermining the unity policy” (Article 87), and three with “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration” (Article 79).

The rest were accused of “conducting propaganda against the state” under Article 88 of the Penal Code.

Three of the more prominent cases in 2012 under Article 88 are:

  • The arrest on 20 September of Nguyen Phuong Uyen, a 20-year-old female student from the southern province of Long An. Charged for distributing leaflets related to the territorial dispute with China, she has been in jail since and the case is still under investigation, according to the police.
  • The sentencing in October 2012 of songwriter “Viet Khang” (Võ Minh Trí) to four years in prison for composing two songs that contain allegedly “anti-state” words.
  • The affirmation on 28 December of the jail terms handed down to bloggers Dieu Cay (Nguyen Van Hai) and Ta Phong Tan, sentenced to 12 and 10 years respectively for their blog posts under the Free Journalists Club.

Restricting online media

In addition to existing laws, the government is seeking new tools to constrain “uncontrolled” freedom of speech online. In April 2012, it issued a draft decree on the “management, supply and use of internet services and online information”, which among others would ban “abusing the Internet” to oppose the government. Under the decree, bloggers would be required to post their real names and contact details, require news websites to obtain government permits, and compel internet service providers to submit their clients’ information to the police upon request.

Beyond using the laws, the government has also targeted specific websites. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung on 12 September ordered the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of Information and Communications and the relevant authorities to crackdown on websites posting distorted information against the Party and State. Websites including “Dan Lam Bao” were ordered investigated to “strictly punish” individuals and organizations responsible. The order also prohibited civil servants and party members from accessing such “reactionary websites”.

The VCP also utilizes “buzz teams” or internet commentators to directly deal with issues on the internet raised by dissidents. A party official from the Propaganda Department in Hanoi said in a meeting to review press activities in 2012 that the department has set up a force of 900 “rumor-mongers” for this purpose. So, far these “professional teams” have set up 19 news sites and 400 internet accounts.

This effort also included “button-pressing, rapid response journalists” who are ““in obedience to the orders from the superiors in dealing with sensitive cases”.

The rumor-mongers are likely to be a replica of the strategy used by the Communist Party of China to post comments favorable towards party policies in an attempt to shape and sway public opinion on various Internet message boards. The Chinese commentators are said to be paid 0.5 Chinese Yuan (or 8 US cents) for every post that either steers a discussion away from anti-party or sensitive content on domestic websites, bulletin board systems, and chat rooms, or that advances the Communist party line.

Outlook

Given the stagnant economy, there are good reasons to forecast that 2013 will not be any brighter for Vietnamese media. The demand for freedom of expression and access to independent information, to a certain extent, has been met by the alternative media in the form of independent blogs that have managed to escape the government clampdown. New ones emerge to replace the ones that have been taken down. The online media has posed more pressure for both the government and the mainstream media to be more open.

However, the situation is expected to deteriorate for bloggers, who tend to be more involved in social issues, than journalists, as the government gets more technically savvy in controlling online communications.

It is almost impossible for the government to entirely block the internet, without incurring political backlash from citizens and the business community in an increasingly inter-connected world.

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