The Vietnamese government has stepped up a media crackdown by tightly monitoring journalists' movements, phone conversations, and online activities, pressuring mainstream reporters to close down their blogs and expanding a list of "taboo" topics, according to a new report.
"Vietnamese officials are stepping up repression of old and new media even as they promote an image of an open, globalized economy," said the report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent group promoting press freedom worldwide.
"Intense surveillance and imprisonment of critical journalists, coupled with increasingly restrictive laws, are choking the flow of information," the group said, basing its report on interviews with 32 bloggers, reporters, and editors both inside and outside of Vietnam.
Many spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisal if their names appeared in a report critical of the government. Several independent bloggers declined to meet CPJ representatives in person due to concerns for their personal security.
The office of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, whose Communist Party-dominated government maintains some of the strictest and harshest media controls in all of Asia, did not respond to CPJ’s written request for comment for the report.
The report said that while Vietnam must maintain a certain degree of openness while integrating into the global economy, authorities are simultaneously striking back against independent journalists and political dissidents who use digital platforms.
Rising grassroots resentment of state-backed land-grabbing, perceptions that the government has ceded territory and made unfavorable concessions to China, and signs of an economic slowdown have all been covered critically in independent blogs.
Responding to this perceived threat, Prime Minister Dung’s administration has unleashed a harsh crackdown on dissent, the report said.
The slowing economy for example has led to an expansion of the government's list of "taboo topics" to include criticism of the government’s economic management, land conflicts between the government and local communities, and the business dealings of the prime minister’s daughter, according to editors and reporters familiar with a set of guidelines issued to the local media by the government's Central Propaganda Department (CPD).
“Vietnam’s government portrays itself as the sole guardian of the country’s national interest, yet economic slowdown, state-backed land grabs, and perceived territorial concessions to China are increasingly criticized by independent bloggers,” said CPJ Senior Southeast Asia Representative Shawn Crispin.
“In response, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s administration has cracked down hard on journalists, dissidents, and activists—a policy that should be reversed,” he said.
The government's list of forbidden topics has traditionally included the activities of political dissidents and activists, high-level official corruption, factional divisions inside the Communist Party, human rights issues, anti-China sentiments or protests, and any mention of ethnic differences between the country’s once divided northern and southern regions.
"Even with those strict guidelines in place, reporters who spoke to CPJ said their movements, phone conversations, and online activities are under tight surveillance," the report said.
Four mobile phones
One local wire service reporter told CPJ he maintains four separate mobile telephones, three registered in other people’s names, to elude government eavesdropping, especially on his communications with foreign embassies and local dissidents.
He said he often places calls to sensitive sources far away from his news bureau to evade possible tracking of his location using the Global Positioning System (GPS), a space-based satellite navigation system.
Several mainstream media reporters who spoke to CPJ said they had earlier maintained independent blogs outside of their news bureaus, where they published material that their newspapers had censored or posted comments critical of their paper’s slanted coverage of news events.
"But as government surveillance over the blogosphere has improved and intensified, many said they have shuttered their blogs, either under direct government pressure or because of concerns they could be fired if discovered moonlighting as a pseudonymous blogger," the report said.
The Vietnamese government does not acknowledge maintaining a formal blacklist of local journalists who have either flouted directives by its Central Propaganda Department (CPD) or who are believed to have ties to political dissidents.
However, journalists who spoke to CPJ insisted that such a list exists.
Although not subject to the CPD’s weekly censorship meetings, international reporters based in Vietnam face a different set of restrictions, according to the report.
Police keep tabs on their reporting activities through required informal “coffee meetings” with their local news assistants, the CPJ report said.
All accredited foreign news bureaus are required to hire local assistants, although the assistants are not allowed press credentials.
In addition, international journalists work in Vietnam on renewable six-month visas, a system that encourages self-censorship for those keen to maintain their position in the country, the bureau chief of one international news agency told CPJ, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The CPJ’s report on Vietnam’s press freedom situation coincides with the highly anticipated trial, set for September 24, on anti-state charges of three prominent bloggers.
The trial of Nguyen Van Hai, Ta Phong Tan, and Phan Thanh Hai could result in up to 20-year prison terms, underscoring the extreme risks that journalists in Vietnam face for expressing independent views, CPJ said.
With at least 14 journalists behind bars, Vietnam is Asia’s second worst jailer of the press, trailing only China, according to CPJ research.
Many of those in detention have been charged or convicted of anti-state crimes related to their blog postings.
Reported by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.