Crimping press freedom

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Regulation after regulation hinders the freedom to report, critics say

Reporters jostling to reach an interviewee at a recent event in Hanoi. Experts have dismissed excessive journalism regulations as hindrances to press freedom. Photo by Ngoc Thang

In less than four months, the government has issued four decrees regulating press freedoms and critics - including government officials, law experts and other analysts - say the mess of rules will obstruct good journalism.

The decrees overlap in several places and grant the right to fine journalists to a number of different agencies, including communal-level authorities. Analysts say such rules can be easily abused as journalists can thus be fined more than once for a single violation.

"If we have too many fines against the press, it will hinder journalism activities," said Le Nhu Tien, vice chairman of a parliamentary committee.

"Journalists need space for their activities," he said.

He argued that new regulations were not needed as long-time laws were good enough.

"Any wrong reporting is handled by the Press Law and the editor-in-chief and the involved reporter are subject to this law and will be handled thusly."

Between July and November, the government issued four different decrees stipulating fines against "press violations" in specific fields, including the reporting of statistics, prices and fees, education, hydrology, and land surveys and mapping.

Meanwhile, all journalistic regulation violations are currently handled by a 2011 decree which was updated by a recent decree that will take effect next month, stipulating even more measures against violations in journalism and publishing.

Shooting dead messengers

According to the 2011 decree, only inspectors from information and communications agencies and district and provincial heads have the authority to fine a journalist or a newspaper for violations.

However, the four recent decrees grant the authority to a number of different officials and agencies, including communal-level heads and inspectors from different agencies other than information and communications.

Pham Cong Ut of the Ho Chi Minh City Bar Association said the four decrees were unnecessary and confusing because they stipulate fines against violations that are already included in the 2011 decree.

"Any other decree is only needed to handle [journalism] violations that are not included in that decree," he said, adding that the Law on Handling Administrative Violations stipulates that a violation can only be fined once.

While the 2011 decree already handles all journalism violations, the four recent decrees also handle the same violations, but sometimes with different fines.

For example, while "wrong reporting" can be fined up to VND5 million (US$238) in the 2011 decree, it can be fined up to VND30 million according to a recent decree on handling violations in reporting statistics.

Who benefits?

Nguyen Duc Chanh of the HCMC Bar Association said there should be only one law on the issue to avoid contradictions and overlapping regulations.

"There are no other activities that face punishment from so many different agencies as the press now does," he said.

Ha Hai, another lawyer from the city's bar association, said only information and communications agencies should have the authority to discipline journalists.

"Other agencies can handle journalism violations that relate to other [non-professional] activities. For example, tax agencies can fine a newspaper for violations in declaring taxes but they cannot fine it for wrong reporting," he said.

Nguyen Huu Tho, a well-known journalist who used to chair the central committee on ideology and culture, said the decrees were "unreasonable."

"There is no other country in the world where every [governmental] department wants to fine the press like in our country," he said.

"Normally, governmental agencies conceal the bad and reveal the good. The press has the task of reporting accurate and factual information. This is against the wishes of the leaders of some agencies," he said.

"If a reporter cannot find the truth behind reported statistics"¦ the press cannot fulfill the role of reporting unbiased, accurate and true information."

Increasing risks

In April, the Ministry of Public Security made a controversial proposal aiming to force journalists to reveal whistleblowers' identities to an expanded group of people.

The ministry said in a statement on its website that among other measures in its anti-corruption campaign, it would propose changes to the Press Law giving more government officials the right to order journalists to divulge their sources.

Vietnam's prevailing laws require media organizations and reporters that discover or publish information on corruption cases to provide information and documents to the heads of provincial-level courts or prosecutors' offices.

But the proposal seeks to add one more category, one that would add virtually thousands of people to the list: "heads of investigative agencies" across the country.

The public security ministry says that the law will give the war on corruption more teeth, but the sentiment has been dismissed by experts who say it will actually facilitate corruption.

Moving the press forwards, not backwards

Tien, the senior lawmaker, said he has repeatedly proposed that management agencies create favorable conditions for the development of journalism.

"There should be a brake and an accelerator. The brake is to prevent and handle violations and the accelerator is to promote journalism development and integration," he said.

"A focus only on punishment will hinder journalism development for sure," he said.

Nguyen Thanh Luong of the Ben Tre Province Bar Association said the excessive regulations make journalists feel unsafe and can be easily abused because it gives such a wide range of people authority over the press.

"The Press Law stipulates that the press is responsible for fighting social evils in order to protect good people. Journalists already face occupational risks but there has been no relevant exemption for them," he said.

Nguyen Huu The Trach of the HCMC Bar Association said the excessive fining of journalists would limit the power of the press to criticize leaders and would lead to only one-sided reports.

"The decrees have created a trap, hanging a "˜noose' of fines that removes press freedom.

"Different agencies with different regulations on fining journalists will increase abuse, adversely affect journalism and limit the ability to report on corruption."

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