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Press Freedom in Vietnam Fades from View
As Vietnam’s annual East Sea Conference gets underway this week, Bill Hayton, former BBC correspondent in Hanoi, who was invited to attend by the Foreign Ministry’s think tank to attend, has been banned from entry by the Ministry of Public Security.
“Vietnam is a country that bans authors because of what they write,” Hayton wrote in an email. “I know this because it has just happened to me. Two months ago the Diplomatic Academy of Viet Nam invited me to attend its annual East Sea conference. Today, standing at the airport check-in counter at Heathrow Airport, I finally abandoned my efforts to get there.”
Said another attendee to the conference in an email: “Hayton’s exclusion makes sense only when viewed through the 'left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing' lens. This annual workshop, now in its 4th year, is Vietnam's only serious effort to dialogue with international experts on Asian relations about the crisis posed by China's expansionist claims in the South China Sea.”
The previous meetings, the source said, have served Vietnam well, judging from the growing numbers of commentators who no longer see all claimants as equally to blame for the confrontations.
“It could be that the internal security folks worry that cruel things may be said about Vietnam's big neighbor, but there's no special reason why they should fear the words of Bill Hayton any more than those of many other participants.”
Hayton is said to have had a protracted battle with authorities. He is the author of Vietnam: Rising Dragon, published in 2010 by Yale University press, a critical look at the country.
“The only reason the ministry can have for banning me is because it doesn't like the book I published two years ago, 'Vietnam:Rising Dragon, he said in an email to colleagues. “It can be the only reason - I have no contact with dissident organizations, I have never plotted to overthrow the party or the state and I have never committed an offence against Vietnam's immigration laws. Of course, when I was the BBC reporter in Hanoi six years ago, I regularly broke the Press Law - but then every foreign journalist in Vietnam breaks the Press Law, almost every single day. It's impossible to be a foreign journalist in Vietnam without contravening the Law's draconian restrictions.”
It isn’t only because of Hayton’s squabbles with the ministry however. Reporters Without Borders says the country has been steadily slipping down the list of countries where press freedom is threatened. It now ranks 172d in the world, two steps up from China at 174th. The decision to bar Hayton thus appears to be emblematic of the country’s increasingly harsh attitude towards a free press. According to a lengthy September report for the Committee to Protect Journalists by Shawn W. Crispin, the NGO’s Southeast Asia senior representative, the CPJ counts 14 journalists and bloggers locked up by authorities for critical reporting on the government and corruption.
“Vietnam’s Communist Party-dominated government maintains some of the strictest and harshest media controls in all of Asia even as it portrays the nation as having an open economy,” Crispin wrote. “Through economic liberalization measures, beginning with market-oriented reforms in the mid-1980s and culminating in the country’s entry to the World Trade Organization in 2007, national leaders have worked to integrate the country into the global community.”
Despite maintaining a certain degree of openness, including over its communications infrastructure while integrating into the global economy, the CPJ report said, “Authorities are simultaneously striking back against independent journalists and political dissidents who use digital platforms. Rising grassroots resentment of state-backed land-grabbing, perceptions that the government has ceded territory and made unfavorable concessions to China, and, now, signs of an economic slowdown have all been covered critically in independent blogs.”
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s administration has cracked down harshly on dissent, imprisoning scores of political dissidents, religious activists, and independent bloggers, many for their advocacy of multi-party democracy, human rights, and greater government accountability, according to Crispin’s report. The country has now become Asia’s second worst jailer of the press, trailing only China, according to CPJ research.
Authorities have also ramped up Internet surveillance and filtering and applied even more pressure on the long-repressed mainstream media. All of the 80-odd newspapers in circulation across the country are owned and controlled by the government. There are around 80 newspapers in circulation across the country, of which a dozen or so are national in scope.
International journalists work in Vietnam on renewable six-month visas, a system that encourages self-censorship for those keen to maintain their position in the country, the bureau chief of one international news agency who spoke on condition of anonymity told CPJ. After one journalist reported on state repression of political dissidents and independent bloggers, authorities shortened his visa renewal period to three months and required government review of his most recent reporting.
Reporters who parachute in, meanwhile, are required to hire a government-appointed minder for the dong equivalent of US$200 per day, a supervisory arrangement that restricts reporters’ ability to conduct candid interviews with independent sources and limits coverage to major news organizations that can afford to stump up that kind of money.