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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
“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