Denied access to the news media, which are all state-owned, dissidents turn to the Internet to express themselves. As a result, cyber-dissidents were the main target of repression in 2003. The press meanwhile continued to modernise. Newspapers that were more liberal were launched, but they were closely watched by the censors.
The day after World Press Freedom Day in May, the army daily Quan Doi Nhan Dan rejected Reporters Without Borders’ accusations about press freedom violations in Vietnam, saying there had been a "media explosion" that was the "result of the policy carried out jointly by the Vietnamese Communist Party and the government with a view to guaranteeing the right to information of all citizens."
Responding to criticism of the crackdown on cyber-dissidents, the newspaper said the state was obliged "to prevent the spread of harmful information, especially violent and pornographic information."
Nguyen Dinh Huy, 71, continued to be imprisoned for calling for respect for free expression. Nguyen Dan Que, a leading dissident and founder of the underground magazine Tuong Lai (The Future) was arrested in March. Despite his health problems, the government showed him no mercy.
In June, Amnesty International reproduced two directives which had been issued by the Communist Party’s political bureau and which showed the level of paranoia within the regime. Dissident journalists were called "criminal spies" while the foreign media, in particular, "radio stations, TV stations, Internet and various embassy information bureaux" were accused of fostering "violence in order to deny the socialist ideal." In fact, the authorities regularly jammed international radio signals, especially Radio Free Asia, and blocked access to many news websites.
Article 69 of the constitution guarantees press freedom, but "dissemination of state secrets" or information that threatens "national security" is several punished in the criminal code. The law allows the authorities to crack down on dissent and sustain a climate of fear for the journalists who work for the countries 500 or so newspapers and magazines.
Nonetheless, some newspapers such as Tuoi Tri (Youth) and Lao Dong often test the limits of censorship by publishing reports on sensitive social and political issues. In July, the authorities temporarily closed down the weekly Sinh Vien Viêt-nam. In a new development, at least three journalists were threatened with violence by criminal groups which did not like being the subject of press investigations.
The Vietnamese government can count on the support of many international bodies such as the International Organisation of French-Speaking Countries to develop news media that are modern, but subject to censorship and self-censorship.
One example is the French-language newspaper Courrier du Viêt-nam, which in early 2003 misquoted European diplomats on their return form an official visit to the high plateaux. Although there has been unrest among the minority groups there, the diplomats were reported to have welcomed the stability and improvement in living standards in the Dak Lak region. But that was denied by one of the diplomats who spoke to Agence France-Presse: "We did not welcome anything. There was a deliberate intent to distort our position."
Two journalists imprisoned
Dissident journalist Nguyen Dinh Huy was still in prison at the end of 2003. Detained 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 69, he was being held at Camp Z30A, in the southern province of Dong Nai. He was a journalist in the former South Vietnam and was banned from working as a journalist after the fall of Saigon. He was transferred in November 2002 from a cell to a small one-room hut with a window in the camp grounds.
Dr Nguyen Dan Que, the editor of the underground magazine Tuong Lai (The Future), was arrested on 17 March 2003 as he was going from his home to an Internet café in Ho Chi Minh City. He was taken to the municipal detention centre. A few hours later, police searched his home, seizing his computer, mobile phone and many personal papers. The arrest of Que, who had already spent nearly 20 years in prison, was thought to be linked to a statement he issued criticising the lack of press freedom in the country. He was responding to the foreign ministry spokesman’s claim on 12 March that freedom of information was guaranteed.
The authorities announced on 22 March that Que had been arrested for breaking article 80 of the criminal code, which provides for the death penalty or life imprisonment for "spying." In September, 12 Nobel Prize winners wrote to Communist Party secretary-general Nong Duc Manh asking him to let Que receive proper medical treatment. Aged 61, he has a haemorrhagic ulcer, kidney stones and high blood pressure.
Que had been under close surveillance since he was last freed from prison in 1998, but he still managed to start up Tuong Lai in 2000 and distribute it within Vietnam and abroad. The magazine campaigned for free expression and condemned the imprisonment of those who defend political and religious freedoms. Most of its articles were also posted on the Internet. Que was first arrested in 1978 and held without trial for 10 years. He was arrested again in 1990 after campaigning for democracy and sentenced to 25 years imprisonment, including 20 with hard labour. After his release under an amnesty in 1998, he was often interrogated and his home was repeatedly searched. He was also the target of public vilification orchestrated by the Ho Chi Minh City state security department. He has a degree in medicine from Saigon University.
Two journalists were released from house arrest in 2003. Reporters Without Borders considers that house arrest is still detention. The authorities use these administrative measures to prevent journalists from communicating and working.
Journalist and dissident Bui Minh Quoc had been under house arrest at his home in the southern city of Dalat since 12 January 2002. He had been 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 more than 300 "reactionary" documents from his home. The day before his arrest, he had met a group of Hanoi dissidents. While under house arrest, 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.
A Vietnamese journalist exiled in France said Quoc was being 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. Quoc had travelled round the region on a motorcycle doing interviews. The notebooks and film from this trip were among the material confiscated by the police. He belonged to a dissident group in Dalat and was previously put under house arrest from April 1997 until the end of 1999 for campaigning for press freedom.
Nguyen Xuan Tu, known by the pen-name of Ha Sy Phu, had been under house arrest in Dalat since 8 February 2001 under government decree 31/CP for being "in contact with reactionaries living abroad with the aim of sabotaging Vietnam." His arrest coincided with a government crackdown on demonstrations in the central Lam Dong mountainous region. He was first arrested in December 1995 and imprisoned for more than a year for allegedly disclosing "state secrets." After being released as a result of international pressure, this former biologist became one of the leaders of a dissident group in Dalat that started a magazine called Langbian. Several years of house arrest followed. They appeared to end with his release on 4 January 2001 but he was returned to house arrest just over a month later. Thereafter, he was constantly harassed by police, with searches of his house, seizure of his computer, pressure on his family and a ban on visits.
At least one journalist physically attacked
Bui Tan Son Dinh of the daily Nong Nghiep Vietnam was attacked by a dozen individuals while researching a story about prostitution in Hi Chi Minh City on 20 April 2003. He had just taken photos of prostitutes and their clients when a group of men asked to see his press card and then gave him a beating. Although a police station was only 300 metres away, no police arrived until after the beating was over.
At least one journalist threatened
Two men set fire to the car of Hoang Thien Nga, the correspondent of the daily Tien Phong in the central province of Dak Lak, outside her home on 21 April 2003. She had done a lot of research into corruption and crime and had written several stories about a lawyer, Dai Hung, who is allegedly linked to both organised crime and local politicians. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Nga had received telephone threats from associates of Hung a few days before the incident. The newspaper told the police, who arrested two youths involved in criminal activity but the instigators were not identified.
Harassment and obstruction
Culture and information deputy minister Tran Chien Thang suspended the press card of Vo Dac Danh, one of the editors of the daily Nguoi Lao Dong, on 9 June 2003 for publishing an article criticising state-funded construction projects.
The government closed down the weekly Sinh Vien Viêt-nam on 15 July for three months and demanded that its journalists carry out "self-criticism." Run by the Ho Chi Minh Association of Communist Youth (which is linked to the Communist Party), the magazine was punished under articles 6 and 10 of the press law for publishing articles and illustrations "offensive" to the regime, the culture and information ministry said. Agence France Presse noted that the cover of the 20 May 2002 issue showed a Vietnamese banknote with Ho Chi Minh’s face floating in a toilet bowl, while the 7 July 2003 issue had a photo of two statuettes representing a naked man and woman. AFP quoted an official as saying the magazine had "abused sensationalist news to get itself publicity."