May 9, 2023
ABN # 65 648 097 123
We request your assessment about the state of freedom of the press in Vietnam.
Q1. Have you ever witnessed some extent of freedom of the press in Vietnam?
ANSWER: I first visited reunified Vietnam in August 1981 and have returned regularly since then. I have given numerous interviews to the Vietnamese print and online media, radio and television. As a result, I have come to know certain journalists quite well. I also appreciate the practical constraints they work under. For example, on sensitive matters like relations with China and disputes in the South China Sea, I am aware that they can quote me as a foreigner when they are not permitted to comment on the same issue.
It is clear that since đổi mới in 1986 there has been a rapid expansion in the number of publications produced in Vietnam and the range of topics that they cover. Although journalists are informed at weekly meeting what they can and cannot report on, some try to push the boundary on restrictions to inform the public. I am personally aware that in 2008, journalists working for Tuổi Trẻ and Thanh Niên reported on corruption in the Ministry of Transport leading to the arrest of many high-ranking officials. The journalists were arrested and their editors were dismissed.
A decade later, Tuổi Trẻ Online was suspended for three months because authorities charged the newspaper with misquoting the state president and publishing views that undermined national unity.
Q2. Since General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong became the most powerful man in Vietnam, how has freedom of the press fared in Vietnam?
ANSWER: In 2011, when Nguyen Phu Trong was first elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), Vietnam ranked 172 lowest out of 180 countries surveyed by Reporters Without Borders for their World Press Freedom Index. Vietnam has languished at the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index ever since. Vietnam fell to 175th place in 2015 at the end of Trong’s first term in office and remained in 175th place at the end of Trong’s second term in 2020.
In 2021, Reporters Without Borders developed new methodology comprised of five new indicators to assess press freedom across the globe. The new results were reported in 2022 and 2023. In 2022, Vietnam ranked 174th out of 180, and fell to 178th in 2023. In 2023, Vietnam was ranked on the five indicators as follows: 163 social (score of 32.95), 163 security (30.66) , 177 legislative (18.40), 179 political (23.75) and 180 economic (17.16).
It should be noted that Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejects the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index as “untrustworthy and unreliable.”
Q3. How does the CPV control the media?
ANSWER: Control and censorship over Vietnam’s media is shared between the Central Commission for Propaganda and Education and the Ministry of Information and Communication. They issue guidance for all state-run media including print, online, radio, and television. All editors-in-chief and senior editors are members of the CPV.
Journalists are required to attend weekly meetings, Tuesdays in Hanoi and Wednesday in Ho Chi Minh City, to receive guidance on what can and cannot be reported. Newspapers and reporters who violate these guidelines can be reprimanded, fined, dismissed or arrested, tried and imprisoned. This leads to a second form of control, self-censorship by the journalists concerned.
Q4. Many people suggest that Vietnamese authorities open the economy and other sectors but constrain the press to ensure that only narratives beneficial to them are published. What is your assessment?
ANSWER: Vietnam faces a dilemma. On the one hand, high economic growth has led to the emergence of large numbers of small and medium-enterprises who reply on the internet for their commercial activities. On the other hand, the internet has become the home of popular social media that often includes views at odds with the official party line.
According to the Ministry of Information and Communication, there are an estimated “41,000 employees engaged in journalism activities, 779 press agencies (including 142 newspapers, 612 magazines, and 25 electronic press agencies), and 72 agencies licensed to operate radio or television, with a total of 87 radio channels and 193 television channels.”
According to DataReportal, as of January 2022, there were 72 million Vietnamese online, or 70% of the population. Reporters Without Borders, estimates that Vietnam has 64 million Facebook users, the seventh highest number in the world.
The CPV has intervened to control social media without shutting down the internet. This has taken the form of applying vaguely worded articles in the Penal Code (Articles 109, 117, 156 and 331) to suppress views deemed hostile to the party line. In addition, Force 47, a cyber unit of the Ministry of National Defence, enlists several thousand
personnel to set up web site and promote propaganda in favour of the CPV. Force 47 also attacks the individuals deemed critical of the CPV.
Q5. Is there any hope for freedom of the press in Vietnam, despite that many prominent journalists like Pham Doan Trang are behind bars?
ANSWER: Theoretically, Vietnam’s Constitution guarantees freedom of the press. But Vietnam’s one-party state governs by “rule by law” rather than “rule of law.” There is no separation of powers in Vietnam between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. The media in Vietnam are not the independent “Third Estate” (representative of the common people) found in liberal democracies.
Vietnam is unlikely to have freedom of the press on a par with liberal democracies forthe foreseeable future. However, the internet and social media will continue to be sites of contestation between the party-state and independent journalists and bloggers. The online platform Facebook and the messaging app Zalo will remain the major conduits for circulating news, information and political opinion.
Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Vietnam: Assessing Freedom of the Press,”
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