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.”
Coverage of the attack lasted about a week, and didn’t delve into the details of the reasons behind the protest. But although reporting on the case in Van Giang was stifled, director Minh says change is in the air. “The situation now isn’t the same as a few years ago,” he says. “Before if there was a case of a project where the state had to take the land from the people, then journalists could only report from the point of the view of the state.”
Protests over land confiscation are common and have been for a long time, he says, but national newspapers have rarely paid any attention to them. Often only the immediate locality is interested and with the majority of readership living in cities, most news organizations simply aren’t concerned with the problems of farmers.
However, the battle between farmers and authorities in Tien Lang changed that. First, readers were attracted by the level of violence, and then appalled by the level of mismanagement by the authorities.
“The space for land protests in the national press is larger now because of the Tien Lang case,” Minh says, adding the incident established the issue as “hot,” meaning more cases will be covered.
Such coverage, if it does materialize, could also help boost Vietnam’s development efforts, says Britain’s ambassador to Vietnam.
Britain is a leading donor on anti-corruption in Vietnam and funds training programs for local media. Ambassador Antony Stokes says the role of the media is to bring information to light in a professional and independent way. This is fundamental in fighting corruption.
“It’s a bit of a challenge and we want to work with the Vietnamese government to address that challenge,” he says.
Stokes says he hopes helping the media become freer from political influence will help promote development.
“The media can play a very important part in identifying corrupt individuals. However, there’s a potential for individuals to feel threatened by this,” he adds.
Pham Van Linh,* who works for a Vietnamese newspaper, says he believes the system of censorship isn’t changing, and may even be becoming stricter.
“Reporting depends on the benefit group in government and who editors have support from,” Linh says. He believes the government restricts the media because it is afraid of losing control over public opinion.
“If authorities lose control they will lose the regime,” he says.
Fellow journalist Hung says she thinks restrictions remain on a case-by-case basis, but that the real force for change is blogging. The interest in the case in Van Giang was triggered almost entirely by the extent of coverage by bloggers.
“Blogging is pushing local coverage forward by bringing more information into the public forum,” she says. “The government can’t reverse information published on the internet.”
Some reporters get around the restrictions by writing blogs under pen names. However the rising influence of this medium hasn’t been overlooked by the government. Contents of blogs are used increasingly in indictments at court that end in jail terms.
One blogger, Le Duc Thich,* says he is regularly followed by police and his work is closely monitored. “They try to pressure me not to write about sensitive issues,” he says. There have also been reports that Hanoi blogger Nguyen Xuan Dien, who was one of the first to spread the news about the protest in Van Giang, has been harassed and forced to close his blog.
Vietnamese laws can serve either to repress or nurture the growth of quality journalism, according to some analysts. One piece of legislation which has sparked concern among the international community is a draft decree on usage of the internet, which is expected to be released this month. The U.S. Embassy in Vietnam issued its own comments on the draft in a letter to the Vietnamese government made public on Thursday 7 June. The decree could force internet users to register using their real names and force news sites to gain government approval before publishing.
The embassy said provisions on banned behaviour on the internet were “overly broad and vague, and therefore likely to negatively impact individuals’ rights to freedom of expression in Vietnam.”
Still, not everyone is pessimistic about the rights of journalists and bloggers in Vietnam. Red Communications director Minh says there are provisions under existing laws that can help improve reporting, but these are rarely implemented. He says under Articles 6 and 8 of Decree 02 “Sanctions for Administrative Violations in Journalism and Publishing” journalists have the right not to be obstructed, and government agencies are obliged to give them information.
“The president of the Vietnam Journalist Association said after Hung Yen that we should wait and see if the reporters acted according to the law. But this was wrong,” Minh says. “According to the law journalists are allowed to work in all territories of Vietnam so they were right to be there.”
While blogging is pushing news reporting to new limits, Minh says people will report more when they know their rights.
“When journalists understand the law they will be more confident and there will be less self-censorship,” he says.
Marianne Brown is the Hanoi-based correspondent for Deutsche Presse-Agentur. Her work has appeared in The Guardian and VOA News, among other outlets.
*Names have been changed to protect identities