By Zachary Abuza
There are currently at least 22 bloggers or journalists behind bars in Vietnam. Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders recently gave Vietnam the lowest rankings in Southeast Asia in terms of internet and media freedom. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports Vietnam is the 5th leading jailer of journalists in the world.
Vietnam’s media environment is restricted through an array of laws, tools, and coercive measures. These include the newly amended 2013 Constitution, which guarantees free speech and assembly but seeks to limit it in the name of national security. Articles 79, 88, and 258 of the criminal code, and Decrees 72 and 174 were drafted to govern the internet and impose harsh fines for any violations. In addition, the use of tax fraud legislation is increasingly used in trials brought against critics of the government.
Trials of dissidents usually are quick, rarely last more than a day, with harsh sentences (eight years on average) handed down. There has been an increase in the number of attacks and acts to intimidate journalists, including those working for the state-owned media, as well as bloggers.
The government has a small army policing the internet, as well as teams of sophisticated hackers that disrupt bloggers’ accounts and news sites from overseas. Unlike China it has no massive firewall, instead targeting individual sites and accounts. It also owns all official media organs, including all television and radio stations. And while the government does not engage in direct censorship, there is significant self-censorship because journalistic boundaries are invisible and shifting.
Currently the government is picking its battles carefully, doing three specific things. First, it is targeting a handful of key and influential bloggers whose writings and advocacy are widely distributed. Second, the government targets those who try to organize and transform what are basically individual blogs into more professional media organs. Third, authorities are targeting lawyers who have taken on cases of dissent and free expression.
But the situation is not without hope.
Despite having the most restricted internet in Southeast Asia, Vietnam has the third highest rate of internet penetration (44 percent), which is well above freer and more developed societies. Internet penetration in Vietnamese cities is now nearing 70 percent, and more than 60 percent of Vietnamese get their news from online sources; while Facebook claims that 71 percent of internet users in the country have Facebook accounts. Vietnam has the 19th largest smartphone market in the world, and it is growing rapidly, despite the fact that the government has held off on the development of a 4G network. Though the government monitors posted content, its attempts in 2008-09 to restrict Facebook completely failed, and the technical workarounds are becoming more and more prevalent.
Second, the blogosphere and social media are surprisingly lively. Mirror sites and the sharing of articles assures that important articles and information are available. There are an estimated 400,000 blogs in Vietnam and millions of Facebook accounts. The number of private online media portals are growing, including one owned by a former editor of the country’s most progressive newspaper.
Third, the spread of the blogosphere has forced the staid state media to compete for market share. Two of the most popular newspapers in the country, which by one estimate have lost two–thirds of their revenue since 2008, have responded by modernizing their websites, increasing new media use, and developing mobile platforms. But more importantly, they have focused more on content.
Emboldened by a number of progressive editors, a handful of investigative Vietnamese journalists are pushing the boundaries. Thanh Nien and Tuoi Tre, both based in Ho Chi Minh City, are leading the charge. A handful of newspapers have tackled issues such as official corruption, inequality, human trafficking, political reforms, violence against journalists, and police torture as aggressively as they can.
This is dangerous work: two journalists from the state media are currently in jail for investigating police and official corruption. And private media is poised to take off, as the internet and other technology have lowered barriers to entry.
All these trends mean a great deal to the burgeoning U.S.-Vietnam partnership.
U.S.-Vietnam relations have improved dramatically since diplomatic relations were restored in 1995. Vietnam and the United States are key trade partners, with over $30 billion in bilateral trade. The two countries have a shared interest in the peace and security of the Asia-Pacific region, including in the peaceful settlement of maritime disputes. Despite this convergence of interests, the relationship has not yet reached its full potential because human rights remain a major irritant in bilateral ties.
Vietnam’s crackdown on the media comes at a sensitive time, but is likely to continue in the run-up to the Communist Party congress, expected in early 2016. The U.S. government in October decided to partially lift the lethal arms embargo on Vietnam on grounds that Hanoi had made progress on human rights, which caught many by surprise and raised concerns within the human rights community.
The next challenge in bilateral ties could come next year if the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks completed. Some members of Congress are expected to oppose Vietnam’s membership in the grouping for human rights reasons.
The United States has made clear it wants to move closer to Vietnam and help it become more open, transparent, and economically integrated with the world. Vietnamese leaders will have to decide whether they want to squash the emerging media at the risk of holding Vietnam back, caught in the middle income trap they so fear, or allow the kind of reforms necessary to turn it into a rule-based, developed society that can stand its own in the coming decades.