Tuesday, June 11, 2013


There is freedom to 'Rock-N-Roll' in today's Vietnam, just don't criticize the government

One afternoon I was traveling through Hanoi by taxi, when I saw a rare sight. Passing by a government building, I saw that a crowd of Vietnamese citizens had gathered out front. A mass of about 60 adult Vietnamese were all grouped together, seated on the ground, and totally silent. This is what passes for a demonstration in Vietnam. There were no speeches, no chanting, and no colorful banners advocating their cause. It was basically a public sit-in.

I would've liked to take a photo of the peaceful demonstrators, but I didn’t dare. There were no uniformed police, but plainclothes police were likely present, watching everyone and everything. Freedom of speech and public assemblies that
criticize the government, can quickly get you in trouble here. Anti-government dissent is rarely tolerated in Vietnam. This demonstration could have been over any number of things: corruption, repression of religious sects, and unfair land confiscation have been common issues these days.
A peeking door looks into an old prison cell in Vietnam
When it comes to freedom in Vietnam, the good news is that they have come a long, long way since the dark days of the cold war. The bad news is that rights are still repressed, and they still have a long way to go.

Take the oddities of daily newspapers for example. With the reforms of doi moi, newspaper content has improved drastically. For the most part, communist dogma has been replaced with regular news articles. The national press now publishes many stories from western media verbatim, such as from Associated Press and Reuters. During my travels, I often read the national English language newspaper, ‘Viet Nam News’, and most stories printed within are indeed newsworthy. The format mostly mirrors western papers, with sections on world news, national news, business and sports. I even found stories covering NBA basketball.

Then there is what’s missing:
Internet access to foreign websites is better in Vietnam than in China
stories critical of the Vietnamese government are rare. Since Vietnam remains a one party system, the communist party is still the main source for government news. The occasional lead story about drab government policy shows the communist party still gets top billing when it so desires. Recent front page headlines include: “Performance key to evaluation of cadre: Party General Secretary.” Or this one: “Cultural exchange hailed as key to building Japan ties.”


As far as mass media goes, a recent step in the right direction, is that there are some privately owned publications. These periodicals tend to focus on fashion, lifestyle or business, rather than hard news. Newspapers, magazines and TV continue to be highly censored. To stay in business, most editors practice self-censorship to continue operating with government permission.

A foreign editor who published a monthly lifestyle magazine called “Asialife”, once explained to me his process of dealing with Vietnamese censorship. “Before it goes to the printer, we send the whole magazine in, and we have to have everything approved,” he told me. “We usually don’t have any problem. We get it back in about a week.”

The subject most notably absent from the daily news, is corruption. In a country where corruption is a top complaint, there are only infrequent stories about corrupt officials, and the occasional crackdowns. Of course, the communist party itself is aware that corruption is their biggest problem, but with so much money flowing into Vietnam’s rising economy, their current manners of dealing with it are like holding back the tide with a bucket. There is even less will on the part of the Vietnamese press to report on those who are arrested and convicted. Even the Chinese press to the north reports more often on their corruption crackdowns, than does the Vietnamese media.
Internet cafe in Vietnam, note that all those within are young people

When comparing Vietnam and China, one freedom that the Vietnamese have more of, is freedom on the internet. Most western websites are unblocked, and viewable within Vietnam. Internet usage has grown so fast, that even Google and Yahoo have Vietnamese language websites and services. But government IT censors do what they can to block many pro-democracy websites, as well as news stories and human rights websites critical of the Vietnamese government. In 2008, the Ministry of Information and Communication created a new agency tasked with monitoring the internet. Like China, they seek to filter out more anti-government information.

Bloggers have daringly tried to fill in the gap in independent news that is left by the traditional state dominated media. Unfortunately for local citizen journalists, Vietnam is not a good country to be a blogger. A select number of high profile bloggers who have been critical of the government have been arrested in recent years.

In 2008, prominent blogger Nguyen Van Hai, also known as Dieu Cay, was sentenced to 30 months in prison on tax evasion charges. Nguyen was the founder of the blogging group called the Union of Independent Journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists stated that these charges were in reprisal for his blogging. With his conviction, Vietnamese bloggers are learning that exercising free speech online can lead to time in prison. 

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