Written by Julia Traunspurger

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  • Area: 332,800 square kilometres
  • Population: approx. 92 Mil.
  • Capital: Hanoi
  • State form: Marxist-Leninist one-party socialist state
  • Official language: Vietnamese
  • Religion: No/folk religion (73.2%), Buddhism (12.2%, 2014)

  • Flag of Vietnam

    Vietnam is one of the few remaining one-party socialist states. Here, media is mouthpiece and supporter of the communist party. There are several institutions controlling the media. In weekly briefings with the Ministry of Communication and Information, editors are supervised what and how to report. If this system of prior censorship fails, there are different laws to punish vague charges always with the intention to protect the party interests. During the Doi Moi renovation process in 1986 media was given a new role. It should block corruption, which was a major limitation for economic development. This role concept leads to a very hazy line for journalists what is allowed to report and what will be punished. Therefore, the role of the media is often described as state-sponsored watchdog. Theoretically, the media landscape in Vietnam is diverse and offers a large number of newspapers, television and radio stations. However, all media outlets are subject to absolute control by the party, the various governmental institutions or the armed forces. Television is the most commonly used medium in Vietnam. However, internet and especially blogs are the new main target of censorship in Vietnam. Journalists’ autonomy is heavily restricted by harsh laws, uncertainty of the media’s role, punishments and unfair trials.
    Communication policy and regulations
    Political Environment
    Vietnam is one of the four remaining one-party socialist states, besides Cuba, China and Laos, that is officially espousing communism. After the victory of the North in the Vietnam War in 1975, the country was unified under a communist government. Due to its impoverished situation and political isolation Vietnam started the so called Doi Moi (Renovation) in 1986. These economic reforms had the goal to lead to a “socialist-oriented market reform” and Vietnam opened up for world economy and international diplomatic relations. Since then the country has experienced an economic upswing (Gamino, 2008: 4-6). However, that economic freedom and uprising did not lead to more media freedom. For the political system the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) uses the press to control news and information and maintain power by “passing a conflicting juxtaposition of laws, decrees, and constitutional amendments that permitted media criticism while essentially making it a crime” (Cain, 2014: 94).
    There are several institutions in charge to control media. Above all there is the Central Department for Propaganda and Education, which supervises the Ministry of Communication and Information (MoIC). Additionally, the party inserted a committee into each news media. Every week “the editors of the media that answer directly to the party’s central organs (…) and the heads of the provincial departments of propaganda and education have to attend a briefing in Hanoi chaired by the heads of the party’s Central Department of Propaganda and Education” (Ismail, 2013: 9). The day after those briefings, the supervisors go back to their provinces and arrange equivalent meetings with the editors of the local media. During those meetings the Department for Propaganda and Education tells exactly what can and cannot be reported and how each story should be handled. In special cases they “may use party officials, phone calls or even text messages to transmit orders to editors whenever sensitive information or a major development is likely to be covered by the media” (ibid: 11). To guarantee the party’s ideological stability a special police unit has been created. The so called “thought police” takes care of intellectuals and cyber dissidents and “it also monitors, harasses and arrests journalists” (ibid: 11).

    Legal Environment
    If those control organs fail or journalists report too critical, the CPV has a legal arsenal that it reinforces with new decrees whenever its interests could be threatened. Theoretically, the constitution of 1992 guarantees freedom of speech while at the same time making criticism of the CPV an offense through various laws (Cain, 2014: 94). The media law aims to “protect the freedom of the media and the right of freedom of speech of citizens through the media” (Ismail, 2013: 17). At the same time “the press is prohibited from reporting information that is ‚untruthful, distorted, or slanderous and harmful’ to an individual or organization. Although prison terms are not prescribed for defamation, various other speech-related offenses carry the potential for jail time under the penal code, including those referencing government figures” (Freedom House, 2016a). Even though the penal code describes some speech-related offenses, which carry the potential for jail time, in reality it does not come to practice very often, because in Vietnam people are not becoming journalists for criticizing the government. However, law does not mandate the right to access information. Therefore, access to official sources and information is heavily limited in practice.
    There are several laws that restrict media freedom. The criminal code bans the distribution of “antigovernment propaganda”. “The authorities usually use the criminal code, in which crimes are defined in such a deliberately vague way that it is easy to apply them to the journalists and bloggers who stray too far from the party line” (Ismail, 2013: 19). Other articles ban activities aimed at “overthrowing the state” (Article 79) or prohibit “abuse of democratic freedoms” (Article 258). Two of the most criticized draconian laws are Decree No. 2 adopted in 2011 and Decree No. 72 in effect since 2013. The first one increased fines for journalists who refuse to reveal their sources in order to “restrict the use of pseudonyms and anonymous sources and to exclude bloggers from press freedom protections” (Freedom House, 2016a). The latter makes it illegal to use social networks and blogs to share news-related information (Ismail, 2013: 22). Due to the growth of internet use and the rise of blogging most of the new laws are dealing with internet restrictions. Furthermore, most NGOs that are concerned about media freedom in Vietnam do criticize the harsh handling with opposition bloggers (see Reporter Without Borders, 2017; Freedom House 2017).
    In addition to the laws, judiciary is not independent. Many trials related to free expression are brief and apparently predetermined. The accused persons are often held for a long time in pretrial detention. Sometimes they even will not be released after completing their sentences. “Police routinely flout due process, arresting bloggers and online activists without a warrant or retaining them in custody beyond the maximum period allowed by law” (Freedom House, 2016b).
    Freedom House (2016) classified Vietnams press and internet as “not free”. In the World Press Freedom Index 2016, Vietnam was ranked 175, the same position as in 2015. Both NGOs refer to the restrictions on content and free reporting due to the weekly CPV’s censorship meetings. Because of this, “the only sources of independently-reported information are bloggers and citizen-journalists, who are the permanent targets of extremely harsh forms of persecution” (Reporter Without Borders, 2016).

    Trade Unions
    The Vietnam Journalist Association (VJA) is the main journalistic union. It is doing special trainings for journalists. All educational institutions are obligated to closely work together. In order to get a member card, you have to be member of the VJA for a minimum of three years. This membership card is the license for all full- and part-time journalists in Vietnam. It is being issued for five years by the Ministry of Communication and Information. VJA sees itself as an official news channel to support the CPV. The VJAs’ president is member of the party’s Central Committee. A code of conduct was introduced by the VJA in 2010. However, it is hardly known among journalists and is not always regarded as compulsory (Michael Tatarski, 2016; Bauer et al., 2011; Vietnam Journalists Association).
    Media offers
    In Vietnam, media is the mouthpiece of the regime and at the same time a propaganda tool for the party. Media shall protect the communist state, guarantee political stability and prevent the distribution of anti-communist ideas. All media is subject of the total control of government and the party (Brauer et al., 2011). As most countries, Vietnam experiences a digital divide: “The most influential media depends on demographic. For older people that would be TV or print papers. For younger people generations it is definitive digital news.” (Michael Tatarski)

    Ownership and Offers
    At a first glance the media landscape in Vietnam seems to be diverse. There are more than 66 TV and radio stations, more than 700 news agencies, more than 850 newspapers and magazines, 80 online newspapers and thousands of news websites. However, all these media outlets continue to be subject to absolute control by the party, governmental institutions or the armed forces (BBG, 2013; Ismail, 2013: 8). There are no private owned media outlets in Vietnam (Brauer et al., 2011). Only an official organization can publish/broadcast mass-media materials or own a newspaper (Freedom House, 2012: 5). “Every media is registered with a branch of the party (…) All are affiliated to party “organs” such as the union of students, the union of workers and young communist organizations (…) Big state-owned companies such as the power company Petro Vietnam, owner of Petrotimes, are also allowed to have their own publications. But no Vietnamese citizens can launch a news outlet on their own initiative” (Ismail, 2013: 8). All key positions in media outlets are occupied by party functionaries, who receive salaries and benefits as ranking state bureaucrats (Freedom House, 2012: 5). “The heads of the leading media such as Nhan Dan (People’s Daily), VTV (Vietnam Television) and VOV (Voice of Vietnam) have the same status as government ministers or deputy ministers and are directly involved in the activities of the party and government” (Ismail, 2103: 8). In view of the above, Vietnam’s journalism can be handled as a so called “development journalism” which is described as “the tendency in some Asian press outlets to support the development goals of the state” (Cain, 2014: 90).

    During the Doi Moi process, which started in 1986, more print publications opened up. Going hand in hand with the rise of literacy and readership in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the “state quickly ceded to demands for more newspapers that could clean up corruption and aid the nascent marketization project” (Cain, 2014: 94). Most of the newspapers are located in the two major cities (Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City). However, the CPV itself maintains a newspaper in all 61 provinces (Brauer et al., 2011). It is said that those in the periphery today still have “more, albeit limited, room to pursue controversial stories” (Cain, 2014: 94). The two largest newspapers are both run by communist youth unions and are based in Ho Chi Minh City. “Tuổi Trẻ (Youth), which operates under the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Organization, is the country’s most-read newspaper with a daily circulation of 400,000. Its rival, Thanh Niên, is the official paper of the Ho Chi Minh Youth League and runs 280,000 copies daily” (Cain, 2014: 94-95). The two newspapers have made the effort to become financially self-sustaining. Even if they are still subject to the total control of CPV, they have a small degree of editorial independence (Freedom House, 2016a). The three most progovernment media outlets are based in Hanoi. Those are, firstly, Nhân Dân (The People), which is the official newspaper of the CPV Central Committee, secondly Lao Động (Labor), which is the publication of the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor, and thirdly Vietnam News the official state wire service newspaper from the Vietnam News Agency (ibid.).

    “Currently, in Vietnam there are 180 radio and TV broadcast stations among them 105 TV channels and 75 radio channels. There are 40 foreign TV channels. TV covers more than 95 % and radio coverage is more than 98 % of the territory” (Hung, 2016: 269). Television is the most commonly used medium in Vietnam. It is omnipresent throughout the country, including both rural and urban households. “By contrast radio and computer ownership, as well as home Internet access, are more common among Vietnamese at higher socioeconomic levels” (BBG, 2013). The only national television provider is the state owned Vietnam Television. However, cable providers carry some foreign channels for those who can afford them (Freedom House, 2016a). State entities and especially Voice of Vietnam (VoV) control radio. VoV has six radio networks, including radio VoV 5 with programs in twelve different languages, for example in Russian, French and English (BBC News, 2015; Voice of Vietnam, 2016).

    Internet has been legalized since 1997, “soon allowing the media to reach a wider audience and to include a more diverse set of voices. The mid-2000s, in particular, marked the rapid expansion of internet journalism that was loosely state-controlled. (…) Despite intermittent crackdowns mostly in the late-1990s, the rise of Internet journalism was the last significant development in an overall trajectory toward a strong, party-credentialed press corps that could enforce checks and balances within, rather than from outside, the CPV” (Cain, 2014: 95). Today there are more than 49 million internet users in Vietnam (Internet World Stats, 2016). “Rising internet penetration has created opportunities for discussion and debate about salient public issues, a situation that has generated tension between the CPV’s distinct goals of promoting new technology and restricting online criticism” (Freedom House, 2016b). One reason for the rise of blogging is the lack of pluralism in other media outlets. It has become an influential means of social dialogue and is, therefore, a thorn in the eye of the government (BBG, 2013; Ismail, 2013: 16). “The internet continues to be the main outlet for free expression despite a growing crackdown by the state” (Freedom House, 2016a). Censorship online is increasingly common. Access to politically unacceptable websites are legally required to be blocked by internet service providers. “Specific URLs are generally identified for censorship and placed on blacklists. Censorship targets high-profile blogs or websites with many followers, as well as content considered threatening to Communist Party rule” (Freedom House, 2016a). Facebook is the biggest social networking site in Vietnam. It has more than 40 million users in 2016 (Internet World Stats, 2016). Even Facebook was target of the censorship in 2016 and briefly blocked in response to protest (Freedom House, 2016b).
    Access is widely available in cities but can be sporadic in rural areas. It is the same case for the quality of access. Additionally, infrastructure is vulnerable to physical damage. The market is highly controlled by a few players, who are all state or military owned.
    Journalists' autonomy
    Role of the media
    Vietnams’ media is often compared to the media system in China. “The Vietnamese party-state, like in China, sees the press as a tool for managing decentralization and factionalism” (Cain, 2014: 94). The party wants the press to be a “state sanctioned watchdog, that can keep a check on the growing power of decentralized bureaucrats, state-owned enterprises (SOEs), and rival party factions while appeasing popular discontent against the regime itself” (ibid: 86). Michael Tatarski: “You can read every day about corruption somewhere in the country. It is almost like they wanted to show the people that corruption is a real problem that exists but only on the countryside and the party is fighting against it.” During the Doi Moi marketization project, corruption was a major limitation for the economic development. So a new aim of the state-sanctioned press was to block it. “In 1986, the CPV tasked the media (…) with addressing popular grievances over low-level corruption, which had contributed to the economic crisis and food shortages under the post-1976 collectivization attempts (…) This media restructuring, however, put the press in the awkward position: all publications were (as they continue to be) wholly or owned partially by the state, but were suddenly being ordered to locate corruption within it” (Cain 2014: 94). Therefore, it is often called a “state-sponsored watchdog”. CPV specifically target media against corruption in administration and economy (Brauer et al., 2011). Leading to a huge uncertainty as there is only a blurred line which stories are in the strategic interest of the Party (Cain, 2014: 87, 102). An interesting fact is the decreased number of news articles that expose corruption when they are “close to the sun” (McKinley, 2009: 21-22).

    The Ministry of Education and Training (MoET) is in charge of controlling and guiding journalists’ education. It is responsible for the coordination, the conception of the curriculum and the academic aims. There are three governmental agencies for journalism students:
    • the Faculty of Journalism and Communication of the Vietnam National University,
    • the Faculty for Journalism and Literature at Ho Chi Minh City University and
    • the Faculty of Journalism and Communications in Ho Chi Minh City.
    There are no private academic journalism programs are forbidden. All academic programs offer under- and postgraduate degrees. In 2011 approximately 300 up to 400 students graduated at the Vietnam National University. Loyalty to the party and its ideology is the main aim of the education. Traditionally the curriculum covers Marxism-Leninism, the ideology of Ho Chi Minh and party policy.

    Working conditions
    According to the Vietnam Journalist Association about 20.000 journalists are registered (Brauer et al., 2011). These journalists are limited in their autonomy in differnet ways. Every week the CPV hands out guidelines to the editors to dictate topics and areas to report on or suppress, as well as how the coverage should be handled. Those instructions are often verbal and nontransparent. It is forbidden to discuss this advice. Journalists and editors also risk post-publication sanctions including disciplinary warnings, job loss, fines or imprisonment (Freedom House, 2016b; Ismail, 2013: 9). As mentioned above, during the Doi Moi process Vietnams’ media had to fulfill another certain role and to fight corruption. Due to an increasingly profit- and justice-driven journalism CPV tries at least to use the growing space between the regime’s political steering of the media and the need to use media as a tool of economic development and of suppressing corruption (Cain, 2014: 87). “CPV tolerates some criticism, mostly internal, as an instrument of rule, while occasionally and arbitrarily striking down at detractors who venture outside a hazy red line” (ibid: 89). Another hazy line is when elite consensus collapses and different party member or groupings openly fight over key issues. Those key issues are corruption, environment, and the political direction of the party (ibid: 91). It is in the interest of the party that it left some topics vague so that they could punish media should they cross the hazy line. However, constant taboo topics are high-level corruption, democratic reforms and religious freedom, land rights, the activities of dissidents, the economic policies, human rights and the relations with China (BBG, 2013; Freedom House, 2016a).
    In case the government wants to punish journalists, there are different methods. Those vary from arrests to prison sentences to torture. However, if these will not work out “the police take off their uniforms and resort to methods worthy of organized crime, including intimidation, beatings, abduction and even violence against the close relatives and loved-ones of independent news providers. No method, no matter how inhuman, seems to be ruled out” (Ismail, 2013: 26). If the accused journalists defend themselves or seek reparation and ask for justice, these reactions usually generate more violence.
    Journalists re brought to trail get often unfair or only sham trials. Before the real process begins, the defendants are often more than 16 months in pre-trial detention, which is illegal under Vietnamese law (Ismail, 2013: 25-26). In early 2017, according to Reporters Without Borders (2017), 174 journalists, 159 netizens and 12 media assistants were imprisoned. The mechanism control for prior censorship, punishment in case of post-publication sanctions and the haze lines of what is allowed are leading to a system of self-censorship.
    Although international journalists normally do not have to suffer the same extent of censorship and negative impacts, they are in the same system of self-censorship. If they report too critically their 6-months working visa will not be renewed and they are denied entry into the country (Interview Tatarsky, 2016).


    Related Links

    Interviewed experts
    • Michael Tatarski, editor and journalist based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (December 2016).
    Recommended citation form
    Julia Traunspurger: Vietnam. In: Michael Meyen (ed.), Mapping Media Freedom. LMU Munich: Department of Communication Studies and Media Research 2017. (access date)

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