Controlling Interest: Vietnam's Press Faces the
Limits of Reform
by Vikram Parekh
Table of Contents
The Emergence of Reform Journalism
Limits to Reporting by the Official Press
Restrictions on the Foreign Press
Ten years ago,an isolated and impoverished Vietnam embraced a policy of economic reforms that the country's leaders termed doi moi,or renewal. Since then,the country's transition to a market economy has captured the attention of many observers and investors in Asia and the United States. Yet the corollaries to market reform-political liberalization,and with it,press freedom-have remained conspicuously absent from the government's agenda. Five dissidents,including CPJ's 1993 International Press Freedom Award winner Doan Viet Hoat,are presently in jail for publishing pro-democracy essays,while official media have periodically faced investigations,and even closure,for stretching the boundaries of acceptable reporting. Vietnam's reluctance to authorize visits by human rights groups has long been an obstacle to inquiry in these areas. In a pronounced and important departure from established policy,however,Hanoi accorded the Committee to Protect Journalists the rare opportunity last September to send a fact-finding mission to the country.
With the full cooperation of the government's Foreign Press Center,CPJ's mission team-board members Peter Arnett of CNN and Harper's magazine publisher John R. MacArthur,as well as Vikram Parekh,CPJ's program coordinator for Asia-enjoyed unprecedented access to a broad array of editors and government officials. Their relative openness allowed for a much-needed dialogue,especially after months of heightened political tension during the run-up to Vietnam's Eighth Communist Party Congress,held every five years to confirm appointments to the Politburo and signal major policy changes.
The Vietnamese authorities' willingness to receive CPJ's delegation was due in part to their familiarity with CPJ and its board. Arnett,a veteran correspondent in Vietnam,is highly regarded by many local officials and journalists for his impartial coverage of the Vietnam War,while CPJ board member Terry Anderson has undertaken reconciliation projects with other former United States Marines who served in Vietnam. And Vietnamese authorities had read with great interest a 1993 CPJ report on the unsolved murders of five Vietnamese-American journalists in the United States,citing the cases in discussions with U.S. diplomats on human-rights issues. At least three of the murdered journalists are believed to have been targeted by extremist factions in the Vietnamese-American community led by former Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) officers violently opposed to U.S. rapprochement with Hanoi.
In a series of meetings in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City,CPJ's mission team found an official press that prides itself on the independence that it has carved out,but which continues to face substantial impediments to investigative reporting. CPJ also found senior officials who were willing to speak frankly about the extent of press freedom in Vietnam,including specific cases of journalists such as Doan Viet Hoat,whom the government has jailed or placed under investigation. Their comments,however,were not always encouraging. Senior officials,including Deputy Foreign Minister Vu Khoan,maintained that state secrecy laws had to be enforced against journalists in order to protect Vietnam's trade and political interests,and that political stability necessitated the continued imprisonment of Hoat and his colleagues.
The government's simultaneous openness to CPJ and its reluctance to lift curbs on press freedom reflect Vietnam's conflicting impulses-to join the international community while seeking to control news coverage of Vietnam both within and without its borders. Such a policy can only result in stasis for the country.
Based on its findings,CPJ urges the Vietnamese government to take the following steps toward insuring a climate of media freedom:
- Release Doan Viet Hoat and others jailed for their writings. Doing so would send an important signal to journalists around the world that Vietnam recognizes their concerns about individuals whom they regard as colleagues. It would also serve as an encouraging sign that Vietnam has again embraced doi moi with the spirit in which it was originally promulgated.
- Refrain from invoking state secrecy and subversion laws against journalists. These laws,which have been used to interrogate the staff of licensed newspapers and jail underground press journalists,are by definition vague,and ripe for abusive interpretation. Moreover,the investigation or prosecution of journalists on charges of leaking state secrets or engaging in subversive activities has a chilling effect on all journalists and media organizations in the country.
- Allow foreign correspondents to report freely on political and economic developments in Vietnam. Foreign reporters based in Vietnam have said they face routine surveillance,wiretapping,and questioning about their sources,as well as prohibitions against residence in Ho Chi Minh City. One internationally respected correspondent-Adam Schwarz of the Far Eastern Economic Review-was expelled from the country when his visa expired in November 1996. CPJ urges the Vietnamese government to recognize the importance of objective international coverage of developments in Vietnam and cease practices that would deter such reporting. At a minimum,this would include ending the surveillance and wiretapping of foreign correspondents,respecting their right to protect their sources,and ceasing the practice of threatened or actual expulsion of foreign correspondents for reports seen as unfavorable to the government. The government should also lift its residency ban on foreign journalists in Ho Chi Minh City.
- Do not hold Internet users liable for the content of received Internet communications. Any attempt to police the content of information circulated on the Internet,through legal or technological means,would only serve to undermine the Internet's use as a communication and information tool. But to hold users liable for received material,as the government office supervising the Internet is reportedly planning,would pose an unjustified threat to the many prospective Internet users in Vietnam.
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