After Nong Duc Manh was elected to replace the very conservative Le Kha Phieu, the official press called on the Vietnamese people to "unite around the Central Committee" of the Party without making any comments on the appointment of the new leader. Newspapers merely published a picture and biography of the new first secretary, elected with 100% of votes, on their front pages.
This year again, Communist leaders reminded the press of their duty several times and attacked dissidents fighting for freedom of expression. The very official People’s Army Newspaper lashed out at dissidents on 29 October: "We can easily hear the same voices that, here, call for freedom of the press and, overseas, foment hostile conspiracies." Two days later, Nguyen Khoa Diem, member of the Party Politburo, asked the press to, "carry out its duties to promote national interests" and to be "vigilant in the fight against propaganda hostile to Vietnam". Finally, on 5 November, the People’s Army Newspaper condemned calls for a multi-party system. In a front page article, the official daily pointed out that the country must not "repeat the situation where imperialists are allowed to move around freely," and condemned Western media for their support to dissidents and the negative image they give of the Party.
Nevertheless, the press continues modernising. Competition among the main titles has increased, even though the five Vietnamese language dailies are controlled by various official organisations: the Communist Party, the army, the official press agency and cities. But journalists, especially the young generation, who are increasingly well-trained, occasionally stray from the Communist Party’s editorial directives. In January, the daily Tuoi Tre (Youth) published a survey on the idols of the young. Ho Chi Minh was naturally first on the list, but only one current leader was on the list with a score of 3.2%. The newspaper was printed, but the article was removed the next day. Some popular newspapers do not hesitate to publish front page articles about torrid crimes and scandals involving celebrities.
Vietnam now has three national television channels. They are directly controlled by the Prime minister’s cabinet and the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Two local channels, one in Hanoi and another in Ho Chi Minh City, are managed by the Party’s local people’s committee. A cable network was set up in the country’s two largest cities in 1997, but is reserved for expatriates and hotels catering to foreign tourists. Vietnamese people are not allowed to receive satellite programmes. Radios, which cover 95% of the country, are very popular. Also controlled by the Prime Minister’s cabinet and the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the five stations of the Voice of Vietnam are relayed by some sixty local stations.
Foreign correspondents have to follow especially strict rules. As soon as they arrive in the country, they must prepare a list of people they wish to meet. To interview a Vietnamese person, a reporter must be accompanied by an agent from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. If an interview is made without authorisation, agents of the Ministry demand that the tape be handed over immediately. On leaving the country, it is common that foreign journalists’ baggage be searched and their films viewed. During a visit to Vietnam in July, Chris Patten, the European Commissioner for Foreign Affairs, stated that restrictions on foreign media were "counter-productive and represent an obstacle to the country’s development."
Finally, in November, the journalist and dissident Nguyen Ngoc Tan died in Ho Chi Minh City. He had been released on 30 April 2000 after five years in a hard labour camp in Ham Tan (north-east of Ho Chi Minh City). Eighty years old and seriously ill, he had been released for humanitarian reasons.
One journalist jailed
As of 1 January 2002, only one dissident journalist remained jailed in the country. Nguyen Dinh Huy has been imprisoned since 17 November 1993. In April 1995, he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for attempting to "overthrow the government of the people." He was accused of being one of the founders of the Movement for the Unity of the People and the Construction of Democracy which fought in favour of freedom of the press. Sixty-eight years old, he is held in camp Z30A, in Dong Nai province. This former South-Vietnamese journalist has not been allowed to practice his profession since the end of the war.
Nguyen Xuan Tu, known by his pen name Ha Sy Phu, was formally placed under house arrest at his Dalat home on 8 February 2001 in accordance with governmental decree 31/CP. This decision, which also concerned a former city council official of Dalat, was announced on 12 February by the Vietnamese police newspaper, Cong An Nhan Dan. According to this publication, the two dissidents were placed under house arrest because they "made contact with reactionaries living abroad with a goal of sabotaging Vietnam." This measure was taken while demonstrations, repressed by the authorities, were taking place in this Central Highlands province. In December 1995, Ha Sy Phu was arrested and jailed for more than one year for revealing "state secrets". This 61-year old former biologist, who was released thanks to international pressure, is one of the leaders of a dissident group in Dalat that created Langbian magazine. Under house arrest, he is the victim of daily police harassment (searches at his home, confiscation of his computer, pressure on his family). Since Ha Sy Phu was released on 4 January 2001, he has had only five weeks of freedom in the last four years.
A journalist arrested
On 5 September 2001, Cong An (Public Security) agents arrested journalist Nguyen Vu Binh together with dissidents Pham Que Duong, Hoang Tien, Hoang Minh Chinh and Duong Hung in Hanoi. They were questioned for several hours in a police station. The same day, the authorities disconnected most of the country’s dissidents’ mobile phones. The following day, a new wave of arrests was carried out among dissidents. Authorities seemed unhappy about their criticism of corruption in the Party and their maintaining some dissidents under house arrest.
Pressure and obstruction
On 15 January 2001, several months after launching the clandestine magazine Tuong Lai (The Future), dissident Nguyen Dan Que was summoned to a "session of denunciation and condemnation by the people" organised by the Public Security of Ho Chi Minh City. He was accused of "treason and anti-governmental propaganda". Nguyen Dan Que, journalist and dissident, was imprisoned twice by the Vietnamese government from 1978 to 1988 and 1990 to 1998.
On 14 February, the government published an executive order on the protection of "state secrets" which went into effect on 1 April. There are now three levels of information defined as state secrets and six categories of "top secret" documents including national security, Party politics, national codes and forbidden zones defined by the government. Dissidents and journalists have been sentenced to jail terms according to this idea of "state secrets", though it had never before been officially defined. Nguyen Hoang Linh, former editor-in-chief of the economic weekly Doanh Nghiep (Entreprise), was sentenced to twelve months and thirteen days in jail in 1998, for this charge, after revealing an important corruption affair among the Vietnamese customs office.
From early February to 15 March, no foreign journalists were allowed to go to the central Highlands province in the centre of the country, especially to Daklak, where ethnic minorities have been protesting. The first organised trip was made under close surveillance by agents of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On 27 September, foreign journalists were prevented from attending the trial of seven ethnic minority activists in Daklak.
On 12 June, police in Ho Chi Minh-City confiscated documents, and especially memoirs of a former high-level Communist official, General Tran Do, who has been refused an authorisation to publish a magazine for several years.
On 11 July, the government promulgated a decree defining a list of subjects the press could not report. Media publishing prohibited information would be liable to fines of up to five thousand euros. In addition, the publication of content considered "pornographic" or "superstitious" can be punished by a fine of up to two thousand euros. The authorities said this decision was made to "increase the responsibility of the press in covering news".
Nong Duc Manh, First Secretary of the Communist Party, has been denounced as a predator of press freedom by Reporters without Borders.