Despite suppression by extrajudicial punishment, social media continue to grow.
Although the Vietnamese Ministry of Information and Communications says media agencies are steadily increasing, the hidden fact is that all of these media outlets are controlled by the government in various forms. But they are fighting a losing battle against hundreds of people who are using social media to defy authority.
Vietnam Right Now, just launched on March 24 this year, is the first alternative news site in English, whose mission is to report human rights violations in Vietnam to the world. Civil society media organizations have been trying to advocate for human rights and democracy in Vietnam despite the challenges they face.
In addition to alternative media, growing numbers are now turning to their Facebook pages or blogs as a medium to voice their opinions in defiance of all political repressions. While the Vietnamese government may not loosen its grip on mainstream media in the near term, it can hardly quell the growing voices of disaffection on the Internet.
But they are trying at a multiple. The government tightly controls the mainstream media through a system of propaganda offices working at both the national and provincial levels, holding regular meetings with the press to mould them into the ruling Communist Party line, although propagandists often euphemistically mention these meetings as “discussions to guide public opinion.”
It is understandable that the party, although trying to control the press via these “guiding discussions,” doesn’t want the international community to know about them. So on the one hand it orders editors-in-chief to convey the party’s editorial direction to subordinate journalists while on the other it wants the press to keep extremely secret its control via such meetings. Unsurprisingly, there is an unwritten law that editors-in-chief must be party members, which ensures that they act on behalf of the party rather than the people.
One of the most effective tools to control the press, small as it seems, is the press card. A small badge, it appears to no different from an ordinary press card you might find in any nation, except that it is issued by the Vietnamese government rather than a professional, civil society organization.
Article 14 of the Vietnamese Press Law defines a journalist as someone “who meets political, ethical and professional standards set by the State” and “is granted a press card.” And a press card is granted by the Ministry of Information and Communication to a reporter only when he or she meets a set of requirements. Unfortunately all of those requirements are hard to meet, especially for reporters who tend to criticize the party.
Worse, by rejecting independent journalists, the government denies the obligation to protect both journalists and freedom of information. It gives the green light for police forces and thugs to persecute bloggers. A 2012 report by RED Communication pointed out that dozens of journalists without press cards have fallen victim to various forms of obstruction, including physical assault.
At the same time, any potential cooperation between mainstream media and alternative media is inhibited. On February 26, 2013, Nguyen Dac Kien, a reporter for Gia Dinh & Xa Hoi (Family and Society), openly criticized the General Secretary as being too judgmental and having committed libel in considering freedom of expression as moral deterioration. The article was published on the popular political blog Anh Ba Sam in the morning, and early that afternoon the newspaper’s leaders held a meeting with Kien and fired him.
In 2013, as Asia Sentinel reported, the authorities also arrested and sentenced three bloggers, two of whom are famous journalists: Truong Duy Nhat, Pham Viet Dao, and Dinh Nhat Uy.
As an example of attempts to control the growing army of online activists, on Jan. 2013, the head of the Hanoi Party Committee’s Propaganda Department, Ho Quang Loi, in a meeting to review the press’s activities in 2012, said the Department had set up a force of 900 “rumormongers” across the city “to fully exploit the power of propagandists.” At the same time, the City’s press, “in obedience to the orders from the superiors in dealing with sensitive cases,” has founded teams of “button-pressing, rapid response journalists”.
“Rumormongers” and “rapid response journalists” have since become popular terms to mean those who are paid by the party to shape public opinions online, the Vietnam version of China’s “50-centers” or the “50-Cent Party,” as in China they are said to be paid 50 cents for every post that steers a discussion away from anti-party content or that advances the Communist Party line.
In 2013, the cyber troops have gone beyond being just “rumormongers” to becoming a real specter to bloggers who use social media as a medium to raise and disseminate their views and to mainstream journalists who tend to be progressive. No one knows the exact number of cyber troops but, given the fact that there are dozens of blogs and thousands of comments attacking democracy supporters each day, and Hanoi alone has 900 rumormongers, there must be thousands of cyber troops nationwide.
These hidden troops browse the blogosphere every day, hastily producing articles in favor of the government’s new policies and against any critic. They also closely follow prominent bloggers and journalists to shape public opinions via those “hubs” by using crude language to intimidate and quell dissident voices.
Not just individual journalists and bloggers, even mainstream newspapers such as the widely-circulated Tuoi Tre (Youth) Daily, Thanh Nien, and the emerging Mot The Gioi (One World) were targeted by the cyber troops, alleged to have “disseminated wrongful and misleading information”, “smeared the image of the party and the state”, even “committed high treason.” In many cases, cyber troops even went further by intruding into netizens’ privacy and producing slanderous information about their “enemies” including bloggers, human rights activists and political dissidents.
Thus today bloggers and journalists do not just have to protect themselves from propagandists, police and thugs, but they must also “survive” massive denunciations by cyber troops. They have to write with the specter of cyber troops looming over their head.
Any light at the end of the tunnel?
Vietnam became a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council for 2014-2016. Human rights activists hope they can take advantage of the UN human rights mechanisms to protect and promote rights in Vietnam, with freedom of opinion and expression seemingly the most widespread violated rights.
The good news is also that in the past five years, some alternative media have emerged, including Dan Luan and Bauxite Vietnam, which were established in 2009, Nhat Ky Yeu Nuoc or the Patriotic Diary, and Dan Lam Bao (Citizen Journalism), est. 2010, the Dien Dan Xa Hoi Dan Su (Civil Society Forum), est. 2013.
Pham Doan Trang is a journalist and blogger from Hanoi, Vietnam