Self-censorship and state capture

Reporting COVID-19 in Vietnam

5 February 2021

In this series, Anrike Visser interviews reporters across Asia on the difficulties of reporting on COVID-19 and underreported issues caused by the pandemic. Previous articles looked at India and South-Korea.

What is the situation of COVID-19 situation in Vietnam?

The situation is excellent, though the past couple of weeks have been concerning. Near the end of January, community transmission was detected in two northern provinces, breaking a 55-day streak without any known local cases. That outbreak has since grown to 375 cases, and this is difficult timing as the huge Lunar New Year holiday, when millions of people traditionally visit their home provinces, begins 10 February. Lockdowns have remained isolated though, and most of the new cases are in a small handful of provinces. Here in Ho Chi Minh City, and in much of the country, daily life remains largely normal.

What are some human rights abuses occurring under the disguise of COVID-19?

It’s difficult to know exactly given that almost all media in Vietnam is state-owned, or at least state-linked, and therefore the handling of the pandemic is presented with almost uniform positivity. Of course, there is good cause to be positive, given the overall public health achievements (just 35 COVID-19 related deaths and under 2,000 total cases out of a population of 97 million), but there have been some harsh actions as well.

For example, there is anecdotal evidence, I personally gathered, of local police releasing the personal information of confirmed COVID-19 patients to nearby residents. Early in 2020, following the appearance of an infection cluster linked to a bar in Ho Chi Minh City, dozens of people were taken from their apartment or home – sometimes in the middle of the night – to quarantine facilities with little or no warning. They had been identified via CCTV, local police and landlords, and I’ve spoken to people who were brought to facilities that were in extremely poor condition and not prepared for people to stay in them.

In July and August 2020, the large city of Da Nang was placed under a hard lockdown for two weeks, and it is hard to tell whether any issues occurred during that period. Overall, people seem to accept these actions for the greater good, and the result – largely normal daily life – can be hard to dispute.

Is there misinformation and/or abuse of fake news laws?

Again, it’s difficult to know if misinformation laws have been abused, as whenever penalties occur, state media reports the infraction without questioning the government’s reaction to it. People have certainly been fined for posting misinformation online – in February 2020, the prominent Vietnamese actress Ngo Thanh Van was fined several hundred US dollars for inaccurately saying that there were still direct flights between Wuhan and Vietnam.

In August 2020, two women in a province in the Central Highlands were fined US$ 216 each for posting on Facebook that positive COVID-19 cases had been discovered nearby, which was not the case.

As far as I know, there have not been punishments for posting fake news beyond a fine.

Are there additional treats to the press with COVID-19?

There isn’t anything concrete beyond the usual threats to press in Vietnam, which are substantial, especially for Vietnamese journalists. Perhaps the biggest threat would be the risk of writing something that goes against the overarching positive assessment of the government’s response to the pandemic. As mentioned above, there is much to celebrate in how things have gone here, but I feel it would be risky to try and cover negative aspects of the response strategy. The government has accumulated a lot of goodwill and credibility through its handling of the pandemic, and it would be difficult to question that in any way.

How do you continue your work as a journalist in these challenging times?

My work hasn’t changed significantly, and in fact is probably safer in terms of personal health than in many reporting environments in other countries at the moment, as I generally don’t have to worry about potentially being infected with the coronavirus. I still take precautions such as wearing a mask, but there is high confidence that you can move around Vietnam without exposing yourself to great risk.

One major challenge, which is a continuation of the pre-pandemic era, is the impossibility of talking to anyone in, or often even adjacent to, the government. I have written several articles about Vietnam’s response to the pandemic, but it is difficult to include Vietnamese voices as public health experts either don’t make themselves available to be contacted or ignore/turn down contact when approached.

This piece was reported by a journalist whose name is being withheld over security concerns.

The views expressed in this interview are solely those of the contributors and do not necessarily reflect those of Global Ground Media.

This series was developed with the support of Free Press Unlimited.

Copyright © 2020, rights reserved as set forth in the copyright notice.

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