Vietnam is not a good place to be a blogger. At least, it's not a good place to be a blogger if you actually want to write what's on your mind. In the last month or so, three bloggers have been arrested for criticizing the communist government, or—as Vietnamese authorities deftly put it—"abusing democratic freedoms" by posting their opinions online. While that charge might seem like a bit of a paradox, their prospects post-arrest aren't looking great. On May the 16th, another blogger, Dinh Nguyen Kha, was sentenced to ten years in jail for "distributing anti-State propaganda" and "deliberately causing injuries".
Those arrests are just one of the issues that spurred former US congressman Joseph Cao into calling Vietnam, "The worst violator of human rights in Southeast Asia" (and that's including Burma, a country where the Rohingya Muslim minority are being systematically wiped out, allegedly with tacit approval from the government). Other issues worthy of some credit for that title include outlawing political opposition to the one-party state, repressing dissidents, severely restricting freedom of expression and arresting, imprisoning and torturing peaceful activists.
Alongside all that intimidation, there's also the side issue of relentless propaganda to put up with as you go about your day. Whether you're watching TV, surfing the internet, or simply walking down the street, Vietnam's propaganda push is ubiquitous. In the capital city of Hanoi, the government rhetoric starts at around 6:45 AM, blasted out of loudspeakers once used to warn locals about impending American airstrikes.
Today, messages range from the humdrum—"Don’t forget to pay your taxes," for example—to the deification of the government and its leaders. It's not quite 1984, but it's not exactly normal, either—imagine being woken up every day with lectures on socialism and warnings of "social evils" rather than building work that seems designed specifically to fuck with you. Perhaps equally irritating, but way more likely to bum you out for the entire day. “We generally try to ignore the speakers,” says street vendor Hong Minh in the capital’s Old Quarter. “But they're really annoying, so it’s pretty difficult.”
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung with former President George Bush in Hanoi. (Photo via)
Spooked by uprisings during the Arab Spring, China’s wanton land-grabbing and unprecedented domestic criticism, the government has used the past year to squeeze even harder on the throat of free speech through a raft of reforms. With independent media prohibited (all agencies must obtain a licence from the state), lawmakers have turned their attentions to the internet. In December, Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng called on his security forces to increase the battle against "hostile forces" (which translates to "free speakers" outside of Vietnam) using the net to "spread propaganda which threatens national security."
Internet access is already tightly controlled, with many pro-democracy websites banned and the majority of public computers monitored for anti-establishment activity. But, unsurprisingly, it doesn’t stop there. The government seems to be fighting all types of technology, recently declaring that Vietnam wasn’t ready for 4G phone services and wouldn’t licence the technology at least until 2015. Given the fact that the nation is home to over 117 million mobile phone subscribers and iPads are nearly as common as paddy fields, critics suggested that the real reason may have been that the government's filters weren't yet ready to handle the new technology.
Broadcast media (again, strictly licensed) is also becoming choked. Already beamed with a 30-minute delay to ensure that "sensitive information" can be purged, CNN and BBC news channels disappeared entirely from many TV screens last month as cable providers responded to a new government law decreeing that a large amount of content on foreign channels must be subtitled into Vietnamese. The translation and editing would be conducted by an agency licensed by the government, checking to make sure the content is "appropriate to the people's healthy needs and does not violate Vietnamese press law". So censorship, effectively.
The rest of the TV spectrum is up there with Olly Murs in the controversy stakes, featuring a mix of cultural documentaries, K-pop music programs, and worthless talk shows, prompting much of Vietnam's youth to become disillusioned with the media available in their country. “Watching TV or listening to radio has completely lost its appeal,” says Thang Phung, a Hanoi social policy student. “Any type of media is strictly censored and no sensitive news is ever broadcast – the government wants everyone to feel safe, wrapped in a blanket of inane entertainment programs.”
A propaganda billboard near Hanoi's West Lake.
Phung has felt the wrath of the state first hand. After starting a relationship with the daughter of a local police chief, he was seized, taken to a police station and threatened with beatings if he didn't confess to his "crimes." What exactly those crimes were never became clear, but after an hour or two of being scared shitless, he was eventually allowed to leave with a warning.
Phung told me that he feels the culture of fear is holding his country back. “Vietnamese people are afraid of speaking the truth,” he explained. “Many believe it will bring trouble for their families and future. There’s a consensus that keeping your mouth shut is the only way to stay safe.”
And while many Vietnamese youths simply ignore the media, those who do seek out news are faced with a print media lacking not only in teeth, but eyes, ears and any other tools they might have once used to report injustice. Vietnam ranked 172 out of 179 countries in the 2013 Reporters Without Borders index of press freedom, and it’s easy to see why.
Vietnam News—the government paper—is the only English-language national newspaper and doubles up as the communist party’s own personal hymn sheet, its front page usually sporting a photo of either the prime minister or president shaking hands with a bewildered world leader.
The Vietnamese-language papers are a little more daring, but any ambitions of bravery are usually extinguished by the routine hefty prison sentences dished out to editors or reporters when the government wants to makes its point. A recent example is the case of a reporter from the Tuoi Tre newspaper who was arrested on suspicion of bribing a police officer after publishing an investigative report that uncovered police accepting bribes.
International Federation for Human Rights president, Souhayr Belhassen. (Photo via)
“In all Asian countries there is a degree of control, but Vietnam—being a single-party state—has much closer control of the media,” says Alan Jones, a journalist who's worked on newspapers across Asia for over 15 years. He continued: “One must assume the government is still unconvinced of the merits of a freewheeling media. The problem is relating the needs of the party and government to the needs of the modern world and its citizens.”
The apparent silver lining of all this propaganda is that no matter how loud the speaker, no one is actively forced to listen. However, while the people keeping their ears closed might only be faced with disapproval, it's those opening their mouths who really have to live in fear. Defenders of civil rights and advocates of democracy face constant harassment and persecution. A report by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) revealed in February that 32 bloggers and web activists were in detention at the time of its publication, many having also been subjected to harassment, intimidation, assaults, and violations of fair trial rights. It also found that, in the previous 12 months, 22 bloggers and web activists had been sentenced to a total of 133 years in prison for their online activities.
FIDH president Souhayr Belhassen called on the Vietnamese government to begin extensive reforms and face up to its responsibilities under the international human rights law. He said, "Instead of engaging in the futile exercise of gagging the internet, it should immediately end the practice of making speech a crime and overhaul its repressive legal framework to ensure respect and protection of the right to freedom of expression, regardless of medium."
That was in February, and considering bloggers are still constantly being arrested and sent to jail, it doesn't look like the government are paying much attention to human rights groups. However, the one hope Vietnam's persecuted have left is the country's bid for a seat on the UN's human rights council. Of course, it's highly unlikely that the country will be accepted (given literally everything I've mentioned). But if it does, it should hopefully force the government into relaxing its autocracy and allowing its people to live how they wish and say what they wish without the fear of spending the next decade behind bars.
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