International Donors Engage Vietnam on Press Freedom

17 March 2009

International donors are encouraging the Vietnamese government to improve the environment for the media there after a widely condemned year of repression.

Whether the unusual behind-the-scenes pressure makes a difference remains to be seen, but the coordinated action may be a precursor to further international pressure on this front, long considered highly sensitive.

International donors have rarely acted together on the sensitive issue of media freedom although the World Bank has invested in research showing the value of transparency and a free press in fighting corruption.  There are some signs that the Bank is slowly ramping up its efforts in this area.

In Vietnam, donor institutions including the Bank began in December to undertake a dialogue on the media with the government, according to Rolf Bergman, the Swedish ambassador to Hanoi, who provided frank insight into the effort to freedominfo.org.

Assessing the overall picture, Bergman said, "The media situation is on a standstill at present; some would argue that it has even taken a step backwards."

Bergman said some donors are asking for a meeting with the National Assembly to give their views regarding a "press law."

What Bergman describes as a "step-be-step" approach began last December in Hanoi at a two-day "consultative group" meeting. Donors attending committed over $5 billion in aid "to further assist Vietnam’s development process and ensure equitable and inclusive growth."

At the same time, the donors critically assessed the government’s effort s to fight corruption and reform public administration.

According to the post-meeting statement, "They agreed a continued dialogue is needed in relation to the role of the media in fighting corruption."

Speaking on behalf of the development partners (DPs) in the post-meeting statement, Bergman said, "The Government of Vietnam and development partners agreed that the fight against corruption should be based on zero-tolerance. Further actions must now be taken to reach this goal." The statement continued, "He also reiterated the crucial role of the mass media if this fight is to be brought to successful end. ‘The mass media should be encouraged by the Government to play this role.’"

The resulting dialogue regarding the role of the media will include such things as giving input on the press law and a draft law on access to information. Bergman elaborated to freedominfo.org. "These issues will be closely monitored by DPs and followed up in various foras: including to identify and discuss ways of supporting the advancement of the role of media in anti-corruption. These issue will also be brought up again in future Anti-Corruption Meetings, Consultative Group (CG) meetings organized by the World Bank and the VN Government ,etc."

During 2008, some governments spoke publically about repression of journalists in Vietnam. Among those protesting the trial and sentencing of the 2 journalists in October were the E.U., the U.S., and Sweden.

The World Bank, however, does not encourage its officials, such as country directors, to make public statements on specific incidents, preferring a behind-the-scenes approach, according to Bank officials.

Some activists are skeptical about the chances of success with Vietnam, one saying that authoritarian regimes are not easily persuaded to allow a more activist press.

Press Freedom Stifled in Vietnam

The media situation is Vietnam is considered deplorable by most observers.

The country was ranked the 161st worst country out of 167 evaluated in a 2007 assessment  of media freedom by Reporters Without Borders.

The Committee to Protect Journalists’ summary of the situation in Vietnam for 2008 begins: "The government cracked down on journalists, bloggers, and pro-democracy activists, sending some to jail and harassing many others."

The Economist  related one of the latest instances of repression in a January 2009 article. The Economist stated:

This month two leading reformist newspaper editors, Nguyen Cong Khe, of Thanh Nien (Young People), and Le Hoang, of Tuoi Tre (Youth Daily), were both told that their contracts would not be renewed, apparently because they were too good at their jobs. Their papers have assiduously uncovered official corruption, most notably with a joint exposé in 2006 about a crooked transport-ministry road-building unit. The journalists behind that story were punished by a Hanoi court last October for "abusing democratic freedoms". Now it looks as if their editors, too, have been culled. A spate of other arrests last year suggests a wider clampdown.

The Economist further noted, "Tran Le Thuy, a former journalist at Tuoi Tre, argues that in the absence of a proper libel or privacy law, the state has no tools for correcting alleged untruths other than politically-laden charges such as ‘abusing democratic freedoms.’"

Later, The Economist  pointed out the potential consequence that concerns the donors, "One consequence may be a loss of steam in the drive against official corruption."     

By Toby McIntosh

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ABOUT IFTI WATCH

In this column, Washington, D.C.-based journalist Toby J. McIntosh reports on the latest developments in information disclosure in International Financial and Trade Institutions (IFTI).
Contact: freeinfo@gwu.edu or
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