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Guarantee of press and speech freedoms

(LLCT) - Over the past 30 years, much progress has been made in ensuring the freedom of press and speech in Vietnam, in terms of both quantity and quality.

1. Undeniable advances in the freedom of press and speech in Vietnam

Over the past 30 years, much progress has been made in ensuring the freedom of press and speech in Vietnam, in terms of both quantity and quality.

Regarding the quantity: According to the 2015 Summing-up Report by the Ministry of Information and Communications, there are 858 printed newspapers and journals in Vietnam currently including 199 printed newspapers (accounted for 24% with 86 central-level newspapers, and those of ministries, agencies and organizations, 113 local-level newspapers), and 659 journals (76%, with 522 central-level journals and those of ministries, sectors, higher education institutions and research institutes); 105 online newspapers and online journals (including 83 online publications of printed press agencies and 22 online newspapers agencies operating independently); 66 radio and TV stations (two central-level stations and 64 local-level stations; in Ho Chi Minh City alone, there are two stations: Ho Chi Minh City TV and Ho Chi Minh City People’s Voice).

There are 182 channels for radio and TV broadcasting, including 105 TV channels and 77 radio channels. Especially, six TV channels don’t have infrastructures for their own transmission lines, namely VOV TV, People’s Security Forces TV, News TV, National Defence TV, National Assembly TV, and People’s TV. Concerning the system of paid television, up to the end of 2015, there were 31 services providing agencies with 73 TV channels and 9 radio channels for domestic broadcasting; and 40 permitted foreign TV channels.

Concerning media coverage outside of Vietnam, there are 53 overseas permanent representative offices of Vietnam News Agency, The Voice of Vietnam, Vietnam Television, People’s Daily, and Young People’s Newspaper respectively. Besides the information taken from the foreign mass media, these offices have proven to be very effective in providing the Vietnamese audience with important international news as well as in voicing the views of the State and socio-political agencies of Vietnam on international events.

The pool of journalists is very impressive with more than 40,000 people, of whom 18,000 have received press cards.

There are 63 publishing houses across the country and 1,500 industrialized printing houses belonging to all economic sectors, which turn out every year dozens of thousands of book titles on different subjects and billions of printed pages. Individual authors can simply register with any of the afore-said publishing houses for publishing and circulating their works according to the market mechanism(1).

Noteworthy is the fact that many private media agencies and a number of TV channels invested by society are also engaged in the press.

Concerning the quality: the progress is manifested in the increased extent of the public’s “self-confidence” or “outspokenness” in expressing opinions in different forms and through different ways, including the press, to contribute to the all aspects of social development, or to present criticisms and recommendations to the Party and State.

Thanks to the growth of the telecommunications and internet infrastructure, the number of internet users inside Vietnam makes up 52% of the total population(1); 35 million people use Facebook (accounted for a third of the total population). This means that Vietnam ranks 3rd in Southeast Asia, only after Indonesia and Thailand, in regard to the number of Facebook users (Facebook’s statistics released in late December 2015)(3).

These achievements are attributed to the growth of the national economy itself. Moreover, it is the increased awareness of human rights and citizen’s rights by the Party, State and society that has facilitated the burgeoning of the communication and information system as seen above.

Considerable progress is also noted in the real attitudes and actions of government agencies and people towards the press, pressmen and the general communication system. It is demonstrated in the high regard for, trust in and cooperation with press agencies in one hand, and the legally appropriate dealing with violations of the rights of press agencies and pressmen.

The legal system, including the Constitution and laws, especially the Press Law, Publication Law and Information Access Law, show more clearly the perception of the Party and State of Vietnam and their political commitments with regard to the guarantee of press freedoms and the freedom of speech.

The Press Law adopted in 2016 is, by itself, a big advance forward, reflecting the real burgeoning of the Vietnam press in the direction forwards modernity.

In this law, such terms as “citizen’s press freedom” and “citizen’s freedom of speech in the press” have clear definitions and detailed contents. Article 9 of this Law lists the prohibited acts as follows:

1. Publishing and broadcasting information against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam with the following contents:

a) Distorting, defaming or negating the people’s administration;

b) Fabricating events and causing confusion among people;

c) Waging psychological warfare.

2. Publishing and broadcasting information with the following contents:

a) Causing division among strata of people, between the people and the people’s administration, the people’s armed forces, political organizations, and socio-political organizations;

b) Sowing hatred, discrimination, division and separatism among nationalities, infringing upon equal rights of the communities of Vietnamese nationalities;

c) Causing division between religious people and non-religious people, between followers of different religions, division between religious believers and the people’s administration, political organizations and socio-political organizations, and offending beliefs and religions;

d) Undermining the implementation of the international solidarity policy.

3.Publishing and broadcasting information that incites war against the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

4. Distorting history; negating revolutionary achievements; offending the nation and national heroes.

5. Disclosing information on the list of State secrets, personal privacy, and other secrets as prescribed by law.

6. Providing information that advocates bad practices and superstition; providing information about mysteries causing bewilderment in society; adversely affecting social order and safety and community well-being.

7. Inciting violence; propagandizing depraved lifestyles; meticulously describing lewd and criminal acts; providing information unsuitable to the fine traditions and customs of Vietnam.

8. Providing information that is untruthful, distorted, slanderous or harmful to the reputation of an organization or agency, or to the honor and dignity of an individual; attributing a crime to a person in the absence of a court judgment.

9. Providing information that affects the normal physical and spiritual development of children.

10. Printing, distributing, transmitting and broadcasting journalistic products or works or contents of information in journalistic works that have been suspended from distribution, withdrawn, confiscated, banned from circulation, removed or destroyed, or contents of information that press agencies have corrected.

11. Obstructing the lawful printing, distribution, transmission and broadcasting of journalistic products and journalistic information products to the public.

12. Threatening or intimidating the life, harming the honor and dignity
of journalists and reporters; destroying or seizing equipment and documents;
and preventing journalists and reporters from carrying out their lawful professional activities.

13. Publishing or transmitting journalist information products containing information prescribed in Clauses 1 through 10 of this Article.

It should be noted that clauses 11 and 12 are applicable to individuals and agencies violating the freedom of the press of press agencies and pressmen.

Apparently, they are in accord with Articles 19 and 20 of the International Conventions on Civil and Political Rights.

The Publication Law 2012 contains similar articles on prohibited acts:

a) Conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and destroying the unity of the whole nation;

b) Conducting propaganda and incitement war of aggression, causing hatred between nations and peoples; conducting incitement of violence; spreading reactionary ideology, obscene and depraved lifestyle, criminal acts, social evils, superstition and destruction of habits and customs;

c) Disclosing the State secrets, personal secrets and other secrets prescribed by law;

d) Distorting historical truth, denying revolutionary achievements; offending nation, well-known persons, national heroes; failing to express or properly express sovereignty; slandering and insulting the reputation of the agency, organization and dignity of the individual. (Clause 1, Article 10)

For the first time, Vietnam passed the Law on Access to Information in 2016, which stipulates the citizen’s right to have access to information and the responsibility of government agencies to meet this right, as well as the prohibited acts in information provision. Seen from the perspective of the Government-citizen relationship, two following articles are worthy of note:

Article 10: Ways of access to information

Citizens have the right to access information in the following ways:

1. Free access to information publicized by government agencies;

2. Requesting government agencies to provide information.

Article 11: Prohibited acts

1. Deliberate provision of distorted or incomplete information; delay in information provision; destroying information; fabrication of information;

2. Providing information or using information to attack the Socialist Republic of Vietnam; to sabotage the unity policy or to incite violence;

3. Providing information or using information to cause harm to human honor, dignity and credit, to sow gender discrimination, and to cause losses to properties of individuals, agencies and organizations.

4. Obstructing, threatening or avenging persons who require or provide information.

Such stipulations have created a legal corridor for citizens to act appropriately in relation to the press. So, the recent disciplining of some press agencies, pressmen and individuals who used the social network for disseminating fabricated information or opinions with ill purposes proved to be necessary.

2. Problems to be anticipated and solved adequately

The birth of the International Declaration and Conventions on human rights marks a big leap in humankind’s shared awareness and action for the sake of human progress. However, these legal instruments can hardly lead to progress in a specific country. Everywhere and anytime there exist following contradictions and misunderstandings, which should be dealt appropriately.

Contradiction between the satisfaction of individuals’ freedom of the press and freedom of speech, and the interests of individuals, organizations and society.

In the current context, the internet and social network are ready and effective communication channels. Individuals have the legitimate right to have their freedom of speech and freedom of information to be satisfied without (or with little) constraint. The State’s control of citizen’s speeches on the digitalized social network is a difficult task.

However, not everybody can draw distinction between “right” and “responsibility”, “the allowable” and “the unallowable”, “the necessary” and “the halt”. With the wide-spreading internet, many people use it to satisfy their right of speech in a responsible way, unlike those who exploit it without any responsibility before the community, country and nation. Recently, ill practices such as fabrication of information, circulation of wrong information, or subjective comments on ungrounded or unverified information have happened, for example the information on “a money reform” or “arsenical fish sauce”, etc. Those actions caused worries among the public, losses to the reputation and economy of individuals and agencies, and even impacted national security. They were, indeed, manifestations of lack of responsibility before society, or even violations of the principles let down in International Conventions. Specifically, Article 19 and Article 20 of the International Convention on civil and political rights stipulate: 

Article 19

1. Everyone have the right to hold opinions without interference.

2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.

3. The exercise of the rights provided for in Clause 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:

(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;

(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (order public), or of public health or morals.

Article 20

1. Any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law.

2. Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.

The freedom of speech is one of the human fundamental rights. On this basis, the press has the right to freedom of expression, thus invested as a social force or “the fourth power”. However, the press cannot exist outside of a specific social environment, and as physical entities, pressmen may have their own interests and may commit errors. Therefore, the press must be subjected to control by society at large, but not only by the State, in a manner appropriate to the characteristics and functions of the press itself. Companies or managers of social network must be responsible to society, and not indifferent to those who make use of the networks to the detriment of society itself.

The amendment and issuance of the Publication Law, the Press Law and the Information Access Law based on the 2013 Constitution was a necessary action of practical value to prevent and deal with specific manifestations of the afore-said contradictions.

Thus, to avoid possible conflicts, citizens, newspapers, journals and media institutions in general must have necessary knowledge of the freedoms of speech, information and press. Moreover, they should know that such principles as objectivity and honesty, go hand in hand with the sense of responsibility to the community, society, Fatherland and people.

Misunderstood identification of the State’s interests with those of the country and the nation; of a State agency’s interests with those of the entire State in general.

Any State is tasked with the duty to protect interests of its country and nation. However, not all States can do - or more precisely, not always do - this task successfully. The class nature of the State makes it detached from the interests of the class, nation and country. Misunderstanding and the pretext of protecting the interests of the country, nation and State may lead a civil servant or a government agency to act in the detriment to citizens’ right to freedoms of press and speech.

In prevention of such possible cases, civil servants and government agencies are required to have good knowledge of the law and to be prudent in making decisions related to freedoms of speech and of press. Furthermore, there must be mechanisms of management appropriate to the current context of digitalized communication. Reality shows that, among the 35 million Vietnamese daily users of Facebook, 21 million use it through mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops. So, the outdated mode of management would become no good(4).

People engaged in State management of information and communication must be politically responsible and sensible, upright, and free from being taken advantage of, from any pressure put by any force, and from wrong or sentiment-based decisions.

Today’s world is full of events, and information may be obtained and circulated very fast and uncontrollably. Therefore, information guiding is a necessity, especially for the media agencies of the Party, State and political organizations. Besides timely opposing falsified and ill-disposed information, there must be tolerant and unbiased attitudes of the agencies managing or directing the press.


(1), (2) News portal of the Ministry of Information and Communication on 31st December 2015.

(3), (4) Online Dan tri newspaper.

Assoc. Prof., Dr. Vu Hoang Cong

Political Theory Journal

Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics

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