When security forces tried to evict a family of fish farmers from their land in Tien Lang district in northern Vietnam, they weren’t expecting to be met with guns and land mines. The ensuing battle ended up with six officers in the hospital and four men charged with attempted murder.
The case was explosive in more than one sense of the word. In a rare move in a country where news is strictly censored by the government, reporters were allowed to thoroughly investigate the case. Indeed, one former Western diplomat said at the time he had never seen local media cover a story to the same depth as bloggers.
Gradually, more and more details came to light revealing broken promises and mismanagement on the part of local authorities. Several officials were disciplined for their involvement.
Such reporting is highly unusual in Vietnam, a country rated 172nd out of 179 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index 2011-2012. Editors have to meet the Propaganda Department every Tuesday for “guidance” on what can and can’t be published. Although some go further than others in covering issues of corruption, self-censorship is rife. The incident therefore gave hope to some that things might change, but just a few months later, on April 24, another protest just outside Hanoi in Hung Yen Province provided evidence to the contrary.
Images of hundreds of police in riot gear facing residents of Van Giang village were posted on blogs, going viral instantly. The protesters were demanding higher compensation for land taken by local authorities to build a satellite city on the outskirts of Hanoi. But despite the hot news, local newspapers remained silent.
Non-governmental organization Red Communication works to improve the quality of journalism in Vietnam. Director Tran Nhat Minh says reporters weren’t given the same freedom to cover the protest in Van Giang as they were in Tien Lang.
“Before Van Giang authorities held a press meeting. The local authorities requested reporters to cover the story according to their own documents and not come to the site because of safety reasons,” he says.
Over the following weeks, a handful of stories filtered through. However, when two men captured on video being beaten by police at the protest were identified as journalists from a state-owned radio station, the incident started making headlines.
“The case in Van Giang showed the failure of the government to silence local media,” says Vietnamese journalist Nguyen Thi Hung.* “There was an order not to report on the case, but the beating of the two reporters from VOV was an excuse for people to cover it.”