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Attacks on the Press in 2003 - Vietnam

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2004
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2003 - Vietnam, February 2004, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c566c323.html [accessed 25 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The already dire situation for Vietnamese journalists deteriorated in 2003, with attacks increasing against reporters covering crime and corruption. Those who used the Internet to distribute independent news and opinion faced harsh prison sentences and increasing surveillance. The traditional media remained under the tight regulation of government censors.

In response to escalating repression of independent journalists and political dissidents in 2003, CPJ named Vietnam one of the "World's Worst Places to Be a Journalist." In doing so, CPJ noted that "the government typically accuses independent journalists of endangering national security and treats even moderate criticism of the government or support for democratic reform as treasonous offenses." The arrest of Nguyen Dan Que brought the total number of journalists in prison at year's end to nine. Most of the imprisoned journalists were charged with national security crimes. Three of the journalists in prison had not yet been put on trial by year's end, although two of them – Tran Khue and Pham Que Duong – had been detained for at least a year.

Foreign governments and international human rights and press freedom organizations, including CPJ, expressed outrage at a 13-year prison sentence handed down to Internet essayist Pham Hong Son in June. Three months later, in unusual deference to international pressure, the Hanoi Supreme Court reduced Son's sentence to five years on appeal. In November, after spending more than nine months in incommunicado detention, elderly writer Tran Dung Tien was given a 10-month sentence on charges of "abusing democratic rights to harm the interests of the state." He was released a week after his trial.

Authorities routinely use the threat of jail time to silence those who use the Internet to distribute information or viewpoints banned from the official press. Five of the eight journalists in prison, including Son, were targeted after writing or distributing information online.

Vietnam currently has 2.7 million Internet users, double the number of a year ago, according to official figures, and the technological infrastructure has not been able to keep up with this rapid increase. In 2003, the government announced initiatives to improve Internet connections by allowing new Internet service providers (ISPs) to operate and by installing two new gateways linking Vietnam to Hong Kong and Shanghai, China. The government determines what information Internet users can access by directly controlling the gateways that link Vietnamese ISPs with the rest of the world, and by a series of regulations limiting online content. An April editorial in the Hanoi Quan Doi Nhan Dan, the official publication of the Vietnamese army, acknowledged that the firewall has "caused serious bottlenecks to Internet connection and traffic." The editorial advocated a more efficient censorship system and called for the consolidation of technical Internet controls, a comprehensive list of banned Web sites, and severer punishments for individuals who access forbidden sites.

ISPs and cybercafé owners are held legally responsible if their customers access banned information online. As a way of justifying such regulations, a Culture and Information Ministry official explained, "Restaurant owners must guarantee the food is free from harmful substances. Therefore it's the same with Internet café owners. They are not allowed to provide young people with poisonous substances."

The Culture and Information Ministry oversees all traditional media content, and harsh penalties threaten journalists who overstep the official boundaries in their reporting. In July, the ministry suspended Sinh Vien Vietnam magazine, which was very popular among students and youth, for "serious wrongdoings in the content of its news and articles, photo selection and layout." Among the offending issues was one that included a picture of a banknote imprinted with a photo of revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh floating in a toilet, and another that ran a cover photo of a nude statue.

Top government officials have acknowledged that crime and corruption are among the most severe challenges facing Vietnamese society and politics, and in response, the state-run media have reported more vigorously on these issues. Journalists faced an additional threat in 2003, with corrupt officials and criminals implicated by press reports seeking violent retribution. CPJ documented four attacks on journalists in 2003, a marked increase over previous years. In one of the most egregious examples, two reporters from official publications were beaten by the chairman of a village cooperative while investigating villagers' complaints about embezzlement by commune officials. Police later filed a report accusing the journalists of "disorderly conduct." While the official press does occasionally report on incidents of violence against journalists, police are often slow to respond to such attacks. n


2003 Documented Cases – Vietnam

JANUARY 22, 2003

Tran Dung Tien, freelance
IMPRISONED

At about 10:30 a.m., the 73-year-old Tien was arrested at a photocopy shop in the capital, Hanoi, according to an account by his wife, Duong Kim Hop. That same day, police confiscated two boxes of documents from their home. Despite repeated inquiries from Hop, police have provided no information about Tien's whereabouts or if he has been formally charged with any crime.

On January 20, Tien had distributed an open letter addressed to government leaders and the media in which he called for the release of imprisoned democracy activists Pham Que Duong and Tran Khue, who were arrested in late December 2002 after meeting at Khue's home in Ho Chi Minh City. Khue, who has been under house arrest since October 2001, has written a number of essays criticizing government policies and calling for political reform. Government officials have stated that both Duong and Khue will be tried but have not clarified on what charges. (Because of the Vietnamese government's extraordinarily tight control over news and information circulated within the country, CPJ classifies open letters, pamphlets, and other forms of political speech in Vietnam as journalism.)

Tien is a former soldier in the Vietnamese army who served as bodyguard to revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh in the 1940s. In recent years, he has written a number of open letters and essays calling for political reform and analyzing the failures of the communist leadership. On November 8, 2002, Tien was briefly detained after protesting the trial of Internet essayist Le Chi Quang, who was sentenced to four years in prison for his writings.

MARCH 17, 2003
Updated: July 29, 2004

Nguyen Dan Que, freelance
IMPRISONED

Que, a writer and publisher of the underground newspaper The Future, was arrested outside his home in Ho Chi Minh City. Police also confiscated several documents and a computer from his house. Que is currently being held at the Nguyen Van Cu Detention Center, according to CPJ sources.

On March 21, the official Vietnam News Agency reported that Que was accused of violating the law by "sending materials with anti-Socialist Republic of Vietnam contents to an organization named 'Cao Trao Nhan Ban' headquartered in the U.S." Que launched Cao Trao Nhan Ban (High Tide of Humanism) in 1990 in Ho Chi Minh City to promote nonviolent human rights activism in Vietnam. Que's brother, Nguyen Quoc Quan, runs a branch office of the organization in Virginia.

On March 13, Que had issued a statement, titled "Communiqué on Freedom of Information in Vietnam," in which he criticized the government's refusal to implement political reforms and lift controls on the media. Que's statement also supported the Freedom of Information in Vietnam Act of 2003, which was submitted to the U.S. House of Representatives on February 27. The bill would support enhanced broadcasts from the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Asia into Vietnam and would allow the United States to counter Vietnamese government blocks on Internet access.

Que, an endocrinologist and prominent writer, has spent a total of 18 years in prison for his political activism since his first arrest in 1978.

On July 29, 2004, Ho Chi Minh People's Court sentenced Que to 30 months in prison on charges of "taking advantage of democratic rights to infringe upon the interests of the state." He is due to be released in September 2005.

APRIL 20, 2003

Bui Tan Son Dinh, Nong Nghiep Vietnam
ATTACKED

Dinh, a reporter for the newspaper Nong Nghiep Vietnam, was attacked by a group of unidentified assailants while reporting on prostitution in Ho Chi Minh City, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP). After Dinh photographed prostitutes and their clients, a group of 10 men asked to see his journalist's identity card and then began beating him. Although the incident occurred about 300 yards (273 meters) from the local police precinct, officers did not take any action to protect Dinh, a colleague told AFP.

APRIL 21, 2003

Hoang Thien Nga, Tien Phong
ATTACKED

Assailants set fire to journalist Nga's car outside her home in Dak Lak Province, in the Central Highlands.

Nga, the Dak Lak correspondent for the national daily Tien Phong, had reported extensively on corruption and crime. Most recently, she had written exposés on Dai Hung, a lawyer with alleged ties to both the criminal underworld and high-ranking government officials. At the time of the attack, police were searching for Hung to arrest him for his alleged involvement in hunting endangered gaurs, or wild cows, with Vo Thanh Long, a senior official in Ho Chi Minh City. Long was arrested in March. In Vietnam, hunting gaurs is punishable by up to seven years in prison.

According to CPJ sources, Nga had received threatening phone calls from Hung's relatives demanding that she stop writing about his case. Several days before the April 21 attack, Nga had asked Tien Phong management for protection, and the paper notified local police about the threats. However, immediately following the attack, police were very slow to respond to Nga's calls for help. Later on April 21, police did arrest two suspects in the case, but authorities have since told Nga that they may not have enough evidence to charge them.

MAY 2, 2003

Duc Hien, Cong An Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh
ATTACKED

Hien, a photojournalist for Cong An Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh (Ho Chi Minh Public Security) newspaper, was attacked after photographing a street brawl in Ho Chi Minh City. Hien went with a police captain to film the brawl, outside the Dong Xanh Bar, at about 2 a.m. Two people at the scene attacked Hien. "They kicked me, beat me, and smashed a glass against my head," he told Agence France-Presse. "I tried to run away but I fell down and they kicked me again."

Hien took pictures during the attack that later helped police identify the assailants, according to Vietnamese press reports. Authorities arrested the two attackers a few hours after the incident. Hien told reporters that he has been attacked before while taking photographs, but that this incident was the most serious he had encountered.

JUNE 18, 2003

Pham Hong Son, freelance
IMPRISONED, LEGAL ACTION

Son, a freelancer, was sentenced to 13 years in prison, followed by three subsequent years of administrative detention, or house arrest, on espionage charges. His sentence was one of the longest handed down to a journalist in Vietnam in recent years. The trial was closed to reporters and foreign diplomats. Son's wife, Vu Thuy Ha, was also barred from the courtroom, except when she was asked to testify briefly.

Following an appeal trial on August 26, the Hanoi Supreme Court reduced Son's sentence to five years in jail. He is still required to serve three years of administrative detention upon his release.

Son, a medical doctor, was arrested in March 2002 after he posted online an essay titled "What is democracy?" The essay had first appeared on the U.S. State Department Web site. Son had also written several essays advocating political reform that were distributed online.

OCTOBER 4, 2003
Posted: October 15, 2003

Nong Huyen Son, Lao Dong-Xa Hoi
Ho Xuan Dung, Phap Luat
ATTACKED, HARASSED

Son, a reporter for Lao Dong-Xa Hoi, the official newspaper of the Ministry of Labor, War, Invalids, and Social Affairs, and Dung, a reporter for Phap Luat, the official newspaper of the Ministry of Justice, were briefly detained and attacked by local officials while investigating complaints of official wrongdoing in Dong Thap Province, according to a report in Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Both journalists, who are based in Ho Chi Minh City, were originally planning to report from Tan Phu Dong commune about the local flour-making industry. However, during their research, they discovered that the local flour-making cooperative is actually a front organization for commune officials to receive government poverty relief funds. Officials then lent those funds to villagers at high interest rates.

While Son and Dung were interviewing villagers about the scheme, the deputy chief of police and the chairman of the cooperative demanded that the journalists turn over their identification cards, which they did. When the reporters asked for a police report to document the confiscation, the cooperative chairman began to hit Dung on her shoulders, back, and arms, Son told AFP. The chairman continued to attack Dung even after villagers tried to form a barrier to protect the journalist.

The officials then forced the journalists to go to the local police station, where they filed a report accusing Son and Dung of "disorderly conduct." Authorities also confiscated their notes, identification papers, and motorcycles.

DECEMBER 31, 2003
Updated: June 3, 2004

Nguyen Vu Binh, freelance
IMPRISONED, LEGAL ACTION

During a three-hour trial, the Hanoi People's Court sentenced writer Binh on espionage charges to seven years in jail followed by three years of house arrest upon his release. Binh's wife was the only family member allowed into the courtroom. Foreign diplomats and journalists were barred from the trial.

Following the proceedings, the official Vietnam News Agency reported that Binh was sentenced because he had "written and exchanged, with various opportunist elements in the country, information and materials that distorted the party and state policies." He was also accused of communicating with "reactionary" organizations abroad.

Binh, 35, appealed the verdict, but on May 5, 2004, the Supreme People's Court in Hanoi upheld his original sentence. Upon hearing the verdict, Binh declared in court that he would begin a hunger strike, saying, "For me, either freedom or death," according to CPJ sources.

Binh's hunger strike lasted 14 days, ending on May 20, Binh's wife, Bui Thi Kin Ngan, told Agence France-Presse. She was allowed to visit him on May 24 at the Ba Sao Prison in Ha Nam Province, 50 miles south of Hanoi. Ngan said that Binh was in ill health after his hunger strike. Authorities moved Binh from the Hoa Lo Moi Prison in Hanoi to Ba Sao Prison around May 18 for unknown reasons.

Binh was arrested on September 25, 2002, from his house in Hanoi and has been held incommunicado since. Shortly before his arrest, Binh had written and distributed online an essay that criticized Vietnam's border agreements with China.

Binh worked for almost 10 years at Tap Chi Cong San (Journal of Communism), an official publication of Vietnam's Communist Party. In January 2001, he left his position there after applying to form an independent opposition group called the Liberal Democratic Party.

Since then, Binh has written several articles calling for political reform and criticizing current government policy. In July 2002, Binh was briefly detained after submitting written testimony to a U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus briefing on freedom of expression in Vietnam. In August 2002, he wrote an article titled "Some Thoughts on the China-Vietnam Border Agreement," which was distributed online.

Several writers have been arrested for criticizing land and sea border agreements signed by China and Vietnam as part of a rapprochement following a 1979 war between the two countries.

Copyright notice: © Committee to Protect Journalists. All rights reserved. Articles may be reproduced only with permission from CPJ.

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