Censorship in Vietnam: Brave New World
Thomas A. Bass
University of Massachusetts Press: 2017
In terms of protecting free expression and political speech, Vietnam remains something of a global basket case. In its World Press Freedom Index for 2017, Reporters Without Borders ranks Vietnam 175th out of 180 countries, ahead of only China, Syria, Turkmenistan, Eritrea and North Korea. According to Freedom House’s 2018 assessment of the quality of civil liberties and political rights in 210 countries, Vietnam ranks 177th, right between theocratic Iran and deeply authoritarian Belarus. Not exactly the finest of company.
While human rights organisations have been grousing about the dismal state of freedom of expression in Vietnam for some time, two obstacles have partially obscured the country’s abysmal record in this area from the purview of outside observers. First is the persistence of a dated understanding of the Vietnamese Communist Party-state derived from its role in the country’s major twentieth-century wars. Owing to the superiority in wealth and firepower of its French, US and Chinese adversaries, the party-state has long been portrayed as a plucky, anti-imperialist “David” poised against a slew of lumbering, hegemonic “Goliaths”. This view has engendered an enduring reservoir of sympathy for the party-state (especially among older Vietnam-watchers who began their careers during the Vietnam War), which has discouraged investigations into its chronic human rights abuses, including its relentless persecution of domestic actors who dare to criticise it publicly.
A second obstacle to grasping Vietnam’s poor record on freedom of expression today is the complex and elusive character of the infrastructure of state repression. From the outside, Vietnam’s internet appears much less controlled than China’s, with in-country users enjoying easy access to Facebook and Twitter as well as prominent foreign-language publications like the New York Times. Newsstands feature scores of locally produced newspapers and magazines, while the work of many allegedly “sensitive” writers can be found for sale in city bookshops.