“It is a sign of the times that a journalist in Burma is writing about a freedom of expression clampdown in a neighboring country, writes Simon Roughneen:
With around 80 political prisoners freed in another amnesty on September 17 and with new Information Minister Aung Kyi announcing that the recently formed country’s press council would be liberalized, Burma is bit by bit shedding the vestiges of authoritarianism that once made the country’s military rulers notorious.
In communist-ruled Vietnam, however, the old order is holding out. “A wicked plot of the hostile forces,” was the ominous-yet-vague description coming out of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s office on September 12, when describing three blogs that posted articles on Vietnam’s corruption and internal squabbles inside the Communist Party.
According to a report by Reporters Without Borders:
The three dissident news blogs named in the prime minister’s directive — Dan Lam Bao (“Citizen Journalists”), Quan Lam Bao (“Senior Officials Working as Journalists”) and Bien Dong — have revealed several political and financial scandals involving the Communist Party’s various factions.
Citing article 88 (a) of the criminal code, the prime minister accused the blogs of anti-government propaganda, “fabricating and distorting information and agitating against the Communist Party and state.” The day before he issued the directive, the authorities banned civil servants from reading the blogs.
Human rights and media freedom groups are expressing concern about the prosecution of three dissident bloggers, a further sign of the regime’s campaign to curb freedom of expression.
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders* and the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights are “deeply concerned” about the trial of Nguyen Van Hai (aka Dieu Cay), Phan Thanh Hai (above) and Ta Phong Tan (left) due to start on September 24, 2012.
They call on the representatives of the diplomatic and international community to send observers to the trial and to publicly and privately urge Vietnam to drop all charges, and release the bloggers immediately and unconditionally.
“The alleged crime committed by these bloggers is to report stories that the government does not want the Vietnamese people to read,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Vietnam’s arbitrary use of vaguely worded national security laws to imprison critics of the government means bloggers are bearing the brunt of this assault on freedom of expression.”
“Vietnam’s government portrays itself as the sole guardian of the country’s national interest, yet economic slowdown, state-backed land grabs, and perceived territorial concessions to China are increasingly criticized by independent bloggers,” says Shawn Crispin south east Asia representative of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
“In response, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s administration has cracked down hard on journalists, dissidents and activists.”
According to a new CPJ report, the ruling Communist party’s central propaganda unit determines the news agendas of mainstream print publications and blacklists reporters who cover politically sensitive topics, including human rights, government corruption and anti-China feelings.
The regime has also ramped up online censorship and surveillance, and plans to introduce new laws to prohibit anonymous blogging.
Such measures “perpetuate a culture of fear and self-censorship for journalists in Vietnam,” says the CPJ’s Crispin “The government needs to bring its policies in line with international standards on freedom of expression.”
*The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders is a joint program of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). FIDH and the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights are grantees of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.