Vietnam cracks down on online journalism to curb dissent

By Eric San Juan

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Oct 9 (efe-epa).- The arrest of a prominent journalist has brought into sharp focus the difficulties faced by the press in Vietnam with the communist regime allegedly trying to silence the digital media outlets that have emerged as an alternative to traditional state-controlled media.

Police arrested Pham Doan Trang on Monday night in Ho Chi Minh City on charges of “making, storing, disseminating or propagandizing information, materials and products that aim to oppose the state.”

The arrest came hours after the annual United States-Vietnam human rights dialog, an event that included discussions on issues such as freedom of expression, in which Vietnam performs poorly, ranked 175th out of 180 countries in an index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Trang, one of the most prominent anti-government voices on issues such as the environment, the rights of women, police atrocities, and land conflicts, had been living without a fixed address due to fears of being arrested.

She told EFE in January that she was not able to stay in the same house for more than a month.

Carlyle Thayer, a professor at Australia’s New South Wales University, told EFE that Trang’s arrest was part of the efforts to suppress critical voices ahead of the upcoming congress of the Communist Party in January, which will elect the country’s leaders for the next term.

“The time is conducive for future leaders to demonstrate their loyalty to the socialist one-party regime by squelching pro-democracy activists to ensure a smooth run up to next year’s party congress,” Thayer said.

Another possible reason behind the activist’s arrest could be her contribution to a book that questions the government’s narrative about a violent clash between the police and residents of a village close to Hanoi over land ownership.

The decades-long conflict reached a flashpoint on Jan. 9 when locals resisted the arrival of dozens of police officers.

The clash resulted in the deaths of three personnel and an 84-year-old community leader.

Trang and four of her co-authors, three of whom have also been arrested in recent months, challenged the official version of the incident, exonerating the villagers and accusing security forces of brutality.

Such a challenge to official claims is unthinkable in traditional Vietnamese media, which is controlled by the state or the Communist Party that has ruled reunified Vietnam since 1975.

Although in the last three decades, Vietnam has witnessed a remarkable transition from a socialist economy to a free market supervised by the state, the media has continued to be sidelined and heavily controlled.

“Vietnam’s penal code contains very general and vague provisions that criminalize all sorts of behavior such as conducting propaganda against the socialist state. All media is state-owned and all editors practice a form of self-censorship, following guidance from the (government),” Thayer noted.

The officials of the information ministry meet once a week with newspaper executives to analyze the news published within the last week and advise them on which topics to cover and those that should be left alone.

“One is always conscious of the limits, till where one can go, although at times they are not clear and are merely assumptions,” a journalist told EFE on the condition of anonymity.

Despite this self-censorship, even official media outlets have faced problems, such as the three-month closure faced by the website of the daily Tuoi Tre in 2018 due to allegedly misquoting the president.

Trang had worked for the official newspaper Phap Luat for years before quitting and shifting to online journalism, which has become the main voice of dissidents in recent years.

Apart from the rise of multiple blogs and anti-government posts on social networks such as Facebook and YouTube, a group of intellectuals founded the 80-member Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam in 2014, which later established the digital newspaper Vietnam Thoi Bao (Vietnam Times).

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