Despite U.S. and international pressure, Vietnam showed few signs of relaxing its choke hold on the press in 2004. While maintaining control of traditional media, the government intensified its crackdown on Internet dissent.
"Vietnam's press has been developing stronger than ever," Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Le Dung told foreign reporters in March in response to questions about worsening conditions documented by CPJ. But for the Vietnamese government, a "strong" media means a compliant one.
An April report from Communist Party officials found that the media had "strictly implemented the party's lines and policies" and "contributed greatly to the campaigns and programs for socioeconomic and cultural development as well as to the national security and external relations domains." The government has ensured adherence to the party line by encouraging self-censorship, harassing journalists, and handing harsh prison sentences to dissenters.
International attention to rights violations put a spotlight on religious persecution and press freedom abuses in Vietnam in 2004. Vietnamese authorities released a number of writers from prison just as the U.S. Congress was considering the Viet Nam Human Rights Act. The measure, which was passed by the House in July but was not considered by the Senate before Congress adjourned in December, would have tied nonhumanitarian U.S. aid to improvements in Vietnam's human rights record. A similar bill died in the Senate in 2002.
Among those released was Le Chi Quang, a law school graduate who posted articles online that criticized the government. Quang served 19 months of a four-year sentence before being freed in June. Two other writers—Tran Khue and Pham Que Duong—were released in July after a year-and-a-half in jail for "taking advantage of democratic rights to infringe upon the interests of the state." Police kept the writers under close surveillance after their releases. Yet another two writers, Bui Minh Quoc and Ha Sy Phu, whose detention was prolonged past the terms of his original sentence, were released from house arrest in 2004.
However, other dissidents languished in prison. In May, a Hanoi court upheld the seven-year sentence of Nguyen Vu Binh, who was convicted on espionage charges in December 2003 after writing an article criticizing border agreements between Vietnam and China. Binh went on a two-week hunger strike to protest the sentence—prompting authorities to bar his wife from visiting.
Nguyen Dan Que, who refused a government offer to leave the country after his arrest for posting critical essays online, was sentenced to 30 months in prison in July. Both he and the imprisoned writer Dr. Pham Hong Son were transferred in September to a remote prison for hard-core criminals in Thanh Hoa Province, making family visits difficult.
Infrastructure and economic constraints—especially outside the capital, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City—keep Internet use lower in Vietnam than in many other Asian countries. Still, the government estimates that the number of Internet users nearly doubled in the last year, to 5.3 million people. In turn, in March authorities imposed strict new regulations to control political content online.
The new rules hold Internet café owners, service providers, and individuals responsible for information stored or transmitted online. Regulations prohibit using the Internet to "infringe on national security" or to store information classified under Vietnam's broad definition of "state secrets." The policy also requires Internet café owners to monitor their customers closely, recording detailed information on each one. In May, the central government formally ordered agencies and ministries to "tighten state management to prevent the exploitation and the circulation of bad and poisonous information on the Internet."
The Vietnamese government has repeatedly touted the media's coverage of corruption as proof of a free press, but content is carefully monitored by editors who must report to the Ministry of Culture and Information. And the central government rarely tolerates reports that question its practices. Truong Dinh Anh, head editor of the popular online magazine VnExpress, was fired under government pressure in November after allowing readers to post critical comments in response to a story about the government's purchase of 76 Mercedes-Benz cars for the biennial Asia-Europe Meeting, a summit of Asian and European heads of state, which was held in Hanoi. An official dispatch said the online magazine's postings "created an unfavorable public opinion inside and outside the country, thereby enabling hostile elements to take advantage of public opinion and smear Vietnam's government."
Foreign journalists remain under tight surveillance and must adhere to travel restrictions. A Hanoi-based correspondent told CPJ that his phone lines had been cut repeatedly while he tried to collect information on sensitive topics, and that officials had threatened to cancel his visa.