Vietnam boosts powers of the press

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A Vietnamese government decree that will take effect next month spells out new penalties for those who obstruct or fail to cooperate with the media.

"Such regulations have been unprecedented in Vietnam's legal system," said lawyer Nguyen Van Hau, a member of the Ho Chi Minh City Bar Association. "The decree contains many positive provisions that envisage new access to information access for members of the press."

Under the decree, those who offend journalists on duty will be fined up to VND10 million (US$513). The fines will double for those who hamper journalists from fulfilling their duties, according to the decree, which takes effect on February 25 of this year.

Those who threaten journalists' lives or deliberately vandalize or seize their property may now be fined up to VND30 million, according to the decree, which will apply to both local and international journalists and press agencies.

It also spells out fines of between VND1-3 million for those who hinder organizations or individuals from providing information to the press.

The same fines will apply to individuals who refuse to provide information to the press under their legal jurisdiction.

Shawn Crispin, the Southeast Asia representative of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), also said she welcomed the provisions enshrined in the decree.

"We would strongly urge the [Vietnamese] government to take this provision to heart and in future sanction government authorities who impede [or] threaten [...] journalists," Crispin said.

But journalists and experts have also voiced concern over a provision in the decree which may impose financial penalties for journalists who fail to identify their sources.

"This provision would be unrealistic given that they must protect [their sources] in certain cases, especially in reports about corruption," said a Vietnamese journalist who declined to be named. "No one would dare to act as whistleblowers if they didn't feel they'd be protected."

The anonymous journalist added that the decree might be contradictory to the prevailing Press Law which enables journalists to keep the identities of their sources confidential.

But Ngo Huy Toan, an official at the Ministry of Information and Communications that drafted the decree, dismissed worries that the decree would compromise whistleblower protections.

"Under Vietnam's Press Law, journalists reserve the right to protect their sources of information depending on specific cases," Toan was quoted by the Tuoi Tre newspaper as saying on Wednesday (January 12).

What the decree is looking to do, he claims, is to require journalists or press agencies to specify their sources of information in everyday reporting.

The editor of one Vietnamese magazine said this provision is still a little bit equivocal and better interpretation would be needed in the future.

"Anyway, I have seen enormous improvements in this decree compared to a draft law that was released one year ago," he said.

Proponents of the decree are hoping that it will have a practical impact.

"The good news is that the decree is already in place," said Hau, the lawyer. "Whether it gives the media more teeth will depend how it is applied in practice."

SOME KEY PROVISIONS

Foreign journalists operating without permits granted by the state will be fined between VND20 million (US$1,024) and VND30 million, under the new decree, which comes into force on February 25.

The detailed description of sexually explicit, debauched acts or grisly murder scenes in press coverage or photos will carry fines of between VND10 million to VND20 million, according to the decree.

The publication of maps that fails to reflect or wrongfully reflect Vietnam's sovereignty will be subjected to fines up to VND30 million, the decree said.

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