Website suspension fuels Vietnam press freedom fears
Tuoi Tre Online, a popular publication in Vietnam, was suspended by Hanoi on July 16 after having published “untrue” and “nationally divisive” content.
The newspaper, founded in 1975 by the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union, Tuoi Tre (“Youth”), is being reprimanded for a June 19 article,“Vietnamese president agrees on issuing demonstration law,” that quotes President Tran Dai Quang as saying that he agreed that there is a need for a law regulating public demonstrations.
Tuoi Tre Online has been ordered to correct its content, issue a public apology, pay a fine of $9,800 and suspend publication for three months, according to Luu Dinh Phuc, director general of the Press Authority under the Ministry of Information and Communication. Tuoi Tre’s print editions, including Tuoi Tre, Tuoi Tre Cuoi Tuan and Tuoi Tre Cuoi, continue to be published.
The need for a law on demonstrations coincides with the detention of hundreds of protesters following nationwide protests in June against a draft law on special economic zones (SEZ), allowing foreign investors to lease land for up to 99 years. Many Vietnamese fear the draft SEZ law would allow countries such as China to impinge upon Vietnam’s sovereignty, although current law allows for 70-year leases. Following the protests, driven by both anti-Chinese and anti-state sentiment, legislators postponed discussions on the draft SEZ law until October.
The passage of the Law on Demonstration has also been delayed, so that all current acts to incite public protests are still deemed illegal. Earlier this month, six Vietnamese were sentenced to 18-30 months in prison for their roles in the destruction of property during protests in the central province of Binh Thuan in June. Prosecutors in Binh Thuan have also charged at least 10 other protesters with similar offenses, and police in Dong Nai Province are seeking prosecution for another 20 protesters. William Nguyen, a US national, is due to stand trial on July 20 for his participation in the protests in Ho Chi Minh City.
While the punishment inflicted upon Tuoi Tre is relatively light, it inevitably draws comparisons to ongoing media crackdowns and internet censorship occurring in neighboring China. Chinese President Xi Jinping has chosen to deal with potential social unrest through media censorship, tightened internet controls, and increasing oversight on civil society.
Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and some Google services are fully blocked or temporarily “blacked out” during periods of controversy. Last week, Christopher Balding, an associate professor at Peking University’s HSBC School of Business in Shenzhen, was dismissed after teaching there nine years. Balding had been a vocal critic of China’s trade and economic policy, and was behind an online petition calling for Cambridge University Press to refuse censorship requests by Beijing to block online access to hundreds of scholarly articles in China.
While Vietnam has not yet resorted to the extreme methods of censorship employed in China, the suspension of Tuoi Tre Online has drawn concern among many Vietnamese who have grown accustomed to a relatively free and open internet – as enshrined under Article 25 of the 2013 Constitution, which allows for freedom of speech, press, and information. Their fear is Hanoi will use growing social unrest as an excuse to censure more publications, and utilize some of the more extreme methods employed by Beijing to assert ever greater control over the media.