The single-party government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has been dogged with accusations of brutally enforcing anti-democratic policies over the years. The most common claims are those alleging that Vietnamese officials target and silence journalists expressing dissenting opinions about the regime.
Vietnam has been consistently ranked 175th out of 180 countries since 2013 by Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index and was identified as the 4th worst jailer of journalists in the world by the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2021 with more than 30 journalists currently in prison (Reporters Without Borders). As the popularity of social media, particularly Facebook (Agence France-Presse), has grown, ordinary citizens have been increasingly targeted as well for critical posts and blogs (Reporters Without Borders). Human Rights Watch raised further concerns in January that the Vietnamese government is taking advantage of the world’s preoccupation with the COVID-19 pandemic by aggressively and systematically crushing “the growing dissident movement” by imprisoning activists with impunity.
These behaviors paint a troubling picture for Vietnamese democracy in and of themselves. However, a closer examination of the details of cases against journalists and the detrimental effects these practices have on overall democratic functioning raises serious concerns about democratic backsliding in Vietnam.
One notable feature of the Vietnamese Communist Party’s campaign against independent journalists and other dissenting voices is the use of Vietnam’s criminal code to legitimize and justify imprisoning dissidents. Many of the imprisoned journalists and activists have been accused of violating one of three particular laws: “‘activities aimed at overthrowing the government,’ ‘anti-state propaganda’ and ‘abusing the rights to freedom and democracy to threaten the interests of the state’” (Reporters Without Borders).
This technique falls under the umbrella of stealth authoritarianism, which is defined by Ozan Varol as “[utilizing] formal legal mechanisms for anti-democratic purposes” (1679-80). Stealth authoritarianism has continued to grow in popularity among anti-democratic movements because the use of legitimate legal routes shields the regime from visceral domestic and international outrage and subsequent resistance to authoritarian policies. By creating a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty about the character of the regime and its policies, stealth authoritarians can gradually chip away at democracy while “[avoiding], to a great extent, the costs associated with transparently authoritarian practices” (Varol 1685).
This methodology has been stunningly effective in Vietnam. Despite “[severe restrictions on] basic civil and political rights,” including restrictions on the creation of political parties and human rights NGOs, the practices of religious institutions, and, of course, strict control of the media (Human Rights Watch), Vietnam was a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council from 2014 to 2016 and is currently making a bid for reelection to the Council for the 2023-2025 term (Vu).
However, the full extent of the Vietnamese government’s anti-democratic crusade becomes evident when examining the details of cases made against individual journalists. Le Trong Hung’s case is an important example of insidious democratic posturing and the use of legal avenues to achieve ulterior authoritarian motives. A citizen journalist, Hung was sentenced to five years in prison this past December under the law forbidding “anti-state propaganda” (The 88 Project) His crime? “Nominating himself as a candidate for election to the National Assembly” (Finney), “advocating for independents running for seats in the National Assembly,” and “distributing copies of the Constitution” (The 88 Project).
These former two ‘crimes’ are particularly relevant to this discussion of stealth authoritarianism because allowing self-nominated candidates to participate in elections has been identified as a possible attempt by the Communist Party to signal their commitment to democratic principles of “political openness” to the international community and democratic organizations. However, because the Party reserves the power to ‘vet’ these candidates, they are still able to keep “dissident independents” off the ballot (Crispin). These kinds of performative policies are a key mechanism of stealth authoritarianism because they create the illusion of tolerance of opposition to the regime (Varol 1713).
The other significant aspect of Hung’s case is the questionable fairness of his trial, which lasted ‘less than four hours” (The 88 Project). Human Rights Watch has warned in reports about the Party’ crackdown on activists that, “After being detained for exercising their rights, people face abusive interrogation, long detention periods without access to legal counsel…and trial by politically controlled courts.”
The case against democracy advocate Pham Doan Trang further demonstrates the willingness of the Vietnamese government to infringe upon citizens’ political and civil rights. Trang, who was sentenced to nine years in prison under the same anti-state propaganda law a few weeks before Hung, was harassed by Vietnamese authorities for years prior in an effort to silence her various activism campaigns (Rees). Similarly, activist Nguyen Tuong Thuy was “harassed, intimidated, assaulted, and arbitrarily detained” by Vietnamese security agents who then “imposed house arrest and a travel ban” before he was arrested and sentenced to eleven years in prison last year under the same anti-state propaganda law (The Associated Press).
Taken together, all of these anti-democratic policies targeting independent journalists indicate that Vietnam is experiencing significant deterioration in all three areas of Ellen Lust and David Waldner’s conceptualization of democratic backsliding. Vietnam’s electoral procedures lack uncertainty and impermanence because of their single party system and the tendency of the Communist Party to block dissenting candidates from elections. Civil and political liberties are being undermined from all sides, with restrictions on freedoms of speech, association, assembly, and press for Vietnamese citizens. And, most obviously, the Party’s ongoing assault on independent journalism in Vietnam has made vertical accountability effectively obsolete (Lust and Waldner 2-3).
Without considerable reform, Vietnam will succumb to stealth authoritarianism and the country will backslide further to become a democracy in name only. And independent journalists, forced to risk their freedom and safety for their craft, will continue to be persecuted for the crime of providing honest and unbiased news to the Vietnamese people.
The 88 Project. “Profile: Le Trong Hung.” The 88 Project, 12 Jan. 2022, https://the88project.org/profile/522/le-trong-hung/.
Agence France-Presse. “Vietnam Jails Citizen Journalists for ‘Abusing Democratic Rights’.” France 24, 30 Oct. 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20211030-vietnam-jails-citizen-journalists-for-abusing-democratic-rights.
The Associated Press. “Rights Group Documents Extrajudicial Harassment in Vietnam.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 17 Feb. 2022, https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/rights-group-documents-extrajudicial-harassment-vietnam-82945151.
Committee to Protect Journalists. “Number of Journalists behind Bars Reaches Global High.” Committee to Protect Journalists, 18 Jan. 2022, https://cpj.org/reports/2021/12/number-of-journalists-behind-bars-reaches-global-high/?fbclid=IwAR3o4K1CfvFbaEtUGCFhzqExBfQFYPsHUgs4c2mH2hoiORUy9Oxy1BFicVc.
Crispin, Shawn W. “The Truth about ‘Democracy’ in Vietnam Today.” The Diplomat, 25 Mar. 2016, https://thediplomat.com/2016/03/the-truth-about-democracy-in-vietnam-today/.
Finney, Richard. “Vietnam Calls Itself ‘Democratic Country,’ Activists Disagree.” Radio Free Asia, 28 Dec. 2021, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/vietnam/calls-12282021170650.html.
Human Rights Watch. “Vietnam: Dozens of Rights Activists Detained, Tried.” Human Rights Watch, 13 Jan. 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/01/13/vietnam-dozens-rights-activists-detained-tried.
Lust, Ellen, and David Waldner. 2015. “Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding.” Washington, DC: USAID, pp. 1-15.
Rees, Stewart. “Vietnam’s Annus Horribilis for Human Rights.” The Diplomat, 15 Dec. 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2021/12/vietnams-annus-horribilis-for-human-rights/.
Reporters Without Borders. “Vietnam : State Violence v. Bloggers and Journalists: Reporters without Borders.” RSF, https://rsf.org/en/vietnam.
Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 100(4): pp. 1673-1742.
Vu, Minh. “Vietnam Reaffirms Candidacy for UN Human Rights Council.” Hanoi Times, 3 Mar. 2022, http://hanoitimes.vn/vietnam-reaffirms-candidacy-for-un-human-rights-council-320137.html.