HAVANA TIMES, Jan 29 (IPS) — A week after Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party ended its pivotal congress of the country’s political elite, there is little evidence in the state-controlled media of a possible return to the openness that once saw high-profile corruption scandals exposed in print here.
“This is the way it is going to be,” a senior Vietnamese journalist told IPS on condition of anonymity, pointing to the staid diet of news filling the pages in the Southeast Asian nation, home to an estimated 700 newspapers and magazines. “The message from the congress to journalists was very clear.”
“Nobody will want to upset the ruling party,” he added. “They know the price if they dare.”
Such fear emerged at the beginning of the Eleventh National Congress, when Dinh The Huynh, the editor-in-chief of ‘Nhan Dan’, the Communist Party’s official news outlet, joined other leaders of the party hierarchy to stamp out arguments calling for “all forms of pluralism”.
It amplified what the Vietnamese had learnt on the eve of the Congress, which ran from Jan. 12 to 19. At that time Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung issued an executive decree that outlawed fundamental features that are the stock in trade of journalists pursuing investigative stories: unnamed confidential sources.
The 44-page decree, which comes into force Feb. 25, “outlines new monetary penalties for journalists who refuse to divulge their news sources or publish articles under pseudonyms,” noted the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based global media rights watchdog, soon after. “[The new decree] supersedes any similar decrees issued in the past,” CPJ added.
The penalty of 2,000 dollars would be levied against journalists who publish articles that are “not in the interest of the people”, reveal “state secrets”, or expose “non-authorised information”.
“This new decree aims to increase government control over Vietnam’s already over-regulated and highly suppressed media,” says Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “The language of the decree is overly broad and represents the government’s latest use of rule by law justifications to limit press freedom.”
The emergence of Nguyen Phu Trong – the new general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) – as the most powerful political figure in the country also served as a reminder that journalists in the country are not defenders of the right to free expression. Trong is a former editor of the ‘Communist Review’, a CPV journal.
Trong was chosen as the party boss on the last day of the secretive congress, which was attended by 1,400 delegates representing the party’s 3.6 million members. He was a compromise candidate to bridge the differences between the premier, Dung, and leading party member Truong Tan Sang, who was appointed president.
“Trong is considered as pro-Chinese and orthodox. He is a hard-line Marxist ideologue,” Vo Tran Nhat, executive secretary of Action for Democracy in Vietnam, a Paris-based group of Vietnamese political exiles, told IPS. “In spite of the unanimity proclaimed during the Congress, Trong and other members of the Politburo have been criticised widely.”
“There were several petitions denouncing him,” added Nhat. “Last year in preparation for the congress, 19 eminent military and CPV veterans signed an important petition to the politburo… accusing four CPV leaders [including Trong] of having favoured corruption, nepotism and the abuse of power.”
The latest crackdown on the press comes on the heels of equally repressive measures Hanoi has imposed on Internet activity, which had served as an outlet – through blogs, websites and social networking sites – for Vietnamese citizens to exchange information and criticise government corruption.
Vietnam’s jails not only hold 17 ‘netizens’ for expressing their views online, but at least two journalists have been imprisoned.
The jailing of the two journalists occurred during a wave of repression targeting the press in 2008. At that time, “252 journalists were sanctioned, 15 journalists had their press cards withdrawn, six journalists were prosecuted and two were imprisoned,” states the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights, a Paris-based rights lobby, in a 2010 report.
The crackdown followed a 2006 media expose of corruption involving high- ranking party officials at the transport ministry. The officials who belonged to Project Management Unit 18 (PMU-18) had reportedly “used millions of dollars to gamble on football matches”.
The sentencing of the two journalists who exposed the scandal marked an about turn by Hanoi, which had since its Sixth National Congress in 1986 embarked on a policy of ‘Doi Moi’, or reform and openness to steadily embrace free market economic policies. This move to lift the country out of poverty also saw the government gradually encourage openness in the national media to expose corruption.
In 1992, when the country approved its new constitution, clauses to defend human rights were enshrined as a national priority.
“The print media in Vietnam has always towed the party line, but in the years leading up to the PMU-18 scandal some in the media were trying to push the boundaries,” says Kulachada Chaipipat, campaign officer for the Southeast Asia Press Alliance (SEAPA), a Bangkok-based regional media rights watchdog. “There were whistle-blowers who used to give journalists information.”
But since then there has been a drop in the number of corruption cases reported in the Vietnamese media, and if they do report on any they are “minor ones,” she told IPS. “The media are afraid of the repercussions.”