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Vietnam's focus on West raises hopes of improved press freedom

Despite the critics, the communist nation has come a long way while other Southeast Asian countries are failing
Vietnam's focus on West raises hopes of improved press freedom

Vietnamese democracy activist Nguyen Van Tuc faces trial in Thai Binh province on April 10. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison for "attempting to overthrow the state" just days after six of his colleagues were also handed heavy jail terms. (Photo by Vietnam News Agency/AFP)

Published: April 16, 2018 04:38 AM GMT
Updated: August 16, 2018 04:44 AM GMT

A free press has been an anathema in Vietnam ever since the communists seized control of the north in 1954 and annexed the south 21 years later. But there are hopes that Hanoi's rigid control of journalism might ease amid its growing dependency on the West as a bulwark against Beijing's expanding military reach across the region.

That dependency was highlighted by the recent visit by the United States aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, a show of military strength in Vietnamese waters which coincided with the scrapping of two-term presidencies in China, enabling Xi Jinping to rule for life as paramount leader.

It was diplomatic assertiveness that irritated Beijing and pleased Washington.

But in the beltway, that Vietnamese shine was tarnished by the jailing of six human rights activists from the Brotherhood of Democracy for up to 15 years on conviction of "activities aimed at overthrowing the people's administration" under Article 79 of Vietnam's 1999 Penal Code.

Masses for the six — including a pastor, a lawyer and a journalist — were said across Catholic parishes, with supporters gathering and marching on the courthouse in Thai Ha, a parish once targeted by thugs and hooligans following a church land dispute.

An activist is not an independent journalist

Vietnam persistently sits near the bottom of the pile of almost every index related to press freedom and human rights. 

Reporters Without Borders ranked Vietnam in 175th spot, just one ahead of China, on its annual index in 2017. It's a performance that's likely to be repeated when the watchdog issues its findings for 2018 on April 25.

This is complicated by an industry-wide problem with too many activists taking advantage of the digital age by promoting themselves as journalists. Before the internet, they would have been better described as an NGO or public relations spokesperson.

The net result is activists, bloggers and journalists are now cast in the same shadow by a communist government that has never been shy in enacting harsh security laws to shut down one and all, resulting in dire levels of self-censorship among genuine independent journalists.

Veteran journalist Vo Van Tao recently told Voice of America that over the past 30 years the Vietnamese government had deliberately replaced a system of central censorship with one of self-censorship at individual news organizations.

It is also the digital age that has freaked out governments across Southeast Asia, upset by the levels public discontent, prompting a scramble to shut down or at least heavily censor online media ranging from news sites to political party and blogger accounts.

In Vietnam, that includes what Reporters Without Borders says is the persecution of independent journalist Pham Doan Trang, who was placed under house arrest recently for publishing a political textbook. Her plight was followed by the case of Truong Minh Duc, jailed for 12 years with a further three under house arrest for his association with the Brotherhood of Democracy.

Draconian attitudes restrict Vietnam's influence abroad

Increasingly, Vietnam needs the support of Washington and its regional allies to counter Beijing's claims in the South China Sea, which overlap international shipping lanes, islands, atolls and features that are also claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines, among other countries.

That should improve alliances with Western countries, also upset by Beijing's belligerence, and keen to take advantage of naval facilities in Cam Ranh Bay, after Vietnam declared the deep-water port open to the world's military and merchant navies. That decision, in 2010, also angered China, enabling competing navies easier access to the Sino shoreline.

But Western support in the foreign policy arena will be contingent upon diehard Republicans such as Senators John McCain and Mitch McConnell and their yearning for democratic reforms in the one-party state.

Vietnam has come a long way since the dark days of the 1960s and 70s, despite the carping of critics, and in recent years been a stabilizing influence in Southeast Asia where countries once touted as the vanguard of political freedom — Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Myanmar after elections in 2015, and Cambodia — have tumbled off their perch.

Diplomatic relations with the West have normalized, religious tolerance has improved, media access is greater than it was, Vietnamese who grew up in Australia, the United States, Europe and elsewhere are welcomed when once they weren't. Nor is Hanoi as anxious about historical interpretations, particularly those that conflict with its take on the war with the United States.

And at a provincial level, demands for a free press have had some success. In February, authorities in Danang rescinded guidelines issued to the local press requiring official approval before disseminating content after a public outcry. The Danang Department of Information and Communications also "sincerely apologized to the press."

Tao noted the department's quick response. "Authorities know how to listen to the reactions of the public," he said. "If the community, and the public react strongly, the highest government authorities at the central level see that something is unacceptable, and consequently, they would also have asked Danang to withdraw it."

The Vietnamese are challenged by their own political system, one that devised a fearsome state apparatus of draconian laws, backed by attitudes verging on Stalinist and enforced by a court system which Amnesty International says lacks independence and impartiality.

That needs to be reformed. For human freedoms to exist — whether politically, religious or ethnic — a free or at least a freer press must be allowed to breathe. Without it, the rest of the country will suffer along with Vietnam's fast-improving ties with the democratic West. 


Luke Hunt is the opinion editor for UCAN and author of 'Punji Trap,' a historical account of Vietnam and the wars of the 20th century. He can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt

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