Reporters Without Borders has called on the Vietnamese authorities, hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum (APEC) summit in Hanoi from 12-19 November, to stop harassing the independent press and to allow the emergence of independent media. The organisation also publishes an exclusive plea for democracy and free press written by father Phan Van Loi, the first dissident to bring out an unlicensed newspaper last April.
The worldwide press freedom organisation also protested at the steps taken by the government to prevent foreign reporters now in Vietnam from meeting dissidents.
"If the leaders attending the APEC summit, particularly George Bush, do not express themselves clearly on the serious failings in Vietnam in respecting freedom of expression, it would be an historic error. The economic development of Vietnam cannot be at the price of forgetting the still precarious state of press freedom”, it said.
Reporters Without Borders urged the foreign press at the summit to respond to the emergence of a dissident press and to try to interview dissidents who have been “quarantined” during the summit. The organisation said it could provide the journalists with the addresses of some of them.
Police have set up guard posts in front of the homes of several dissidents, including journalists working for independent publications. Hoang Tien, Pham Hong Son, Pham Que Duong and Nguyen Van Dai have been forbidden to leave home. Foreigners are warned not to approach by a board reading: "No foreigners". The authorities have put up a notice in Vietnamese in front of the home of Nguyen Thanh Giang, which reads "security zone". Police officers are stationed outside the home of Hoang Tien, one of those behind dissident paper Tu Do Dan Chu (Freedom and Democracy) to prevent any contact during the summit. Ten police officers have been camping in front of the home of Nguyen Van Dai since 14 November. Lawyer and dissident Bui Thi Kim Thanh has been forcibly admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Ho Chi Minh City.
These steps appear to have been decided on 19 October by the public security minister in Hanoi. Security forces were told to be on the alert during the summit and to isolate dissidents.
Elsewhere, four Americans of Vietnamese origin and four Vietnamese were sentenced on 10 November to 15 months in prison for "terrorism". All of them, linked to a radical US-based group, were accused of illegally bringing radio equipment into the country to broadcast anti-government messages. One of them was expelled to the United States a few days later. The other Americans were expected to be expelled shortly.
Under pressure from the international community, Vietnam has recently appeared to ease its political stance towards the Internet. For example, several cyber-dissidents, including Pham Hong Son, have been released since 2005. This relative leniency has however also given a boost to the democracy movement, which commendably used the Internet to organise and to post independent news.
As a result dissident movement Bloc 8406 launched an online petition, which hundreds of Internet-users signed in their own names, calling on the government to undertake political reform. But the use of the Net by these democrats frightens the authorities, which frequently resort to force to silence cyber-dissidents. Around a score of people have been imprisoned this year for articles posted online. Four of them are still behind bars: Truong Quoc Huy, Le Nguyen Sang ("Nguyen Hoang Long"), Huynh Nguyen Dao ("Huynh Viet Lang") and Nguyen Vu Binh. Vietnam is also fragrantly filtering the Internet and blocks access to opposition websites run by foreign-based Vietnamese.
Since the launch of Bloc 8406 in April, numerous democratic initiatives have been taken countrywide, including the creation of independent media. In October, the foreign ministry spokesman decided that this group was illegal and the security services have constantly harassed its main movers.
Finally, Reporters Without Borders offers its support to those running unlicensed newspapers which have started to appear over the past few months in Vietnam. Father Phan Van Loi has succeeded in dodging repeated attacks against the independent press. He puts out a printed version of the newspaper Tu Do Ngon Luan (Freedom and Democracy) which has been secretly distributed since its launch in April this year. In 1998, father Phan Van Loi tried to secretly publish Tin Nha (News from home) abroad, which led to police sanctions. Today, the dissident speaks out and calls on Vietnamese leaders to respect press freedom.
The UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights adopted, opened for signing, ratification and membership by the General Assembly on 6 December 1966 and by Vietnam on 24 September 1982 says at Article 19: “1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference. 2. 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 other media of his choice.”
The Constitution of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (1992) says in its Article 69: “The citizen shall enjoy freedom of opinion and speech, freedom of the press, the right to be informed, and the right to assemble, form associations and hold demonstrations in accordance with the provisions of the law.”
All this shows that theoretically and officially, the Vietnamese state recognises freedom of expression and freedom of the press. But since 1989 (date of the 28 December 1989 press law) until 2006 (date of Decree 56-CP on culture and information, 6 June 2006), the state has published 23 pieces of legislation which have progressively and totally crushed this freedom. Why?
The political regime in Vietnam from 1954 to the present day is a communist and totalitarian regime in which the National Assembly (legislative power), the government (executive power), the courts (judicial power), the press (newspapers, magazines, radio, television, Internet... the fourth estate), the Army, the Police (armed forces) are in the hands of the Communist Party which considers them to be its instruments.
Almost 600 newspapers and magazines, hundreds of radio and television stations, one hundred web pages in Vietnam are under the control of the party (not counting 3,000 firewalls erected by the Internet police). This monopoly strengthens the government and, of course, boosts the holdings of the Communist Party (particularly the political bureau) but causes huge damage and suffering to the nation and the people.
The Communist leaders have now become red capitalists who enrich themselves not only through business (market economy with a socialist orientation) but also by the sale of power (permissions, licensing), by exploitation of ordinary people (collusion with heads of foreign companies), by exporting labour (a kind of human-trafficking), by confiscation of the land of peasants, town-dwellers and the churches (through planning and urbanisation which are hardly ever publicly advertised). Corruption among these leaders is on an unimaginable and shameless scale! The press can report on the facts but this news is tightly controlled and they ever challenged ranking leaders. The Party’s 150 central commissioners are virtually untouchable! As a result, the ordinary people and the religious communities deprived of their small parcels of land become helpless victims. The government becomes a sort of mafia (red mafia). Recently, even a foreign ministry magazine was closed because it published letters of complaint and some weeklies were threatened with closure because they carried articles about the defects in new paper money made of polymer.
Imbued with atheist dialectical materialism and a Stalinist-Leninist concept of power, the communist leaders never accept the influence of spiritual forces (religion, the churches) in society, “reactionary” opinions of democrats or competition from political parties. As a result, there is no privately-owned independent press in Vietnam. A few so-called religious magazines are in fact organs of the party, cunningly mixing religious doctrine with Marxist doctrine, putting the power of the party in the same category as spiritual power, putting Ho Chi Minh, major criminal and vicious predator, and the saints on the same level.... Newspapers or official journalists who challenge the management of the party, talk about political pluralism or who seem to encourage it are subjected to immediate punishment or harsh coercive measures. A few pro-democrat militants recently tried to publish magazines both printed and posted on the Internet, but the government quickly cracked down on them. One result of the serious damage of this political monopoly is that Vietnam remains one of the world’s ten poorest countries.
Currently, thanks to the spread of cyberspace techniques (Internet, paltalk, skype, blogs...), many citizens can search for, find and spread information and ideas of all kinds, beyond our borders. Faced with this development, the State and the Communist Party cannot remain indifferent. All of this threatens their power.
Taking advantage of this situation and this relative leniency (particularly during the APEC summit in Hanoi in Hanoi) we dissidents of the democratic movement, are trying to claim freedom of expression, which is the soul of all freedoms (Voltaire). Now, two independent magazines Tu do Ngon luan (Freedom of Expression) and Tu do Dan chu (Freedom and Democracy), are appearing in written form and circulate more or less openly. (One strange thing, the bi-monthly, Tu do Ngon luan has managed to stay in existence for seven months, since 15 Apri,l and has produced 15 issues!). Two others, To Quoc (The Fatherland) and Dan chu (Democracy) have been launched online. The editors try to present to the government as well as the people, the values of democracy, the dangers of totalitarianism, the crimes of communism and human rights which have been officially and solemnly incorporated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. We want to give a message to the Party and to the People: Only the truth frees! Freedom alone is worthy of man. Only Democracy brings progress!
Hué, Vietnam,16 November
Pierre Phan Van Loi, catholic priest, editor of Tu do Ngon Luan