Vietnam’s restrictions threaten progress: donors

Vietnamese Catholics hold a vigil outside a court in Hanoi

HANOI — Vietnam’s restrictions on the news media and Internet sites such as Facebook threaten the country’s rapid economic progress, Western donors told an annual meeting of World Bank and other officials on Thursday.

“Economic growth and development requires an open and transparent environment for all stakeholders, Vietnamese and international,” US ambassador Michael Michalak told the opening session of talks between Vietnam and its aid-givers, known as the Consultative Group.

There has been a “shrinking of the space for honest, reliable information” recently, Michalak told the two-day meeting where pledges of aid are announced.

Michalak and the Swedish ambassador, Rolf Bergman, both expressed concern about recent reports that the world’s most popular online social networking site, Facebook, is being restricted.

“This is not about teenagers chatting online. It is a question of people’s rights to communicate with one another, share ideas and to do business,” Michalak said.

An Internet provider said last month that Vietnam’s public security ministry had ordered blockage of the site which, like other online platforms, offers room for expression not permitted in traditional media which are all linked to the communist state.

The Minister of Information and Communication, Le Doan Hop, last month indicated to legislators that he wanted to reinforce control of the Internet. He said “toxic and bad-intentioned information” has sometimes circulated in cyberspace.

“We urge you to lift all restrictions on the Internet,” said Bergman, speaking on behalf of the European Union.

Vietnam provoked international criticism this year by arresting bloggers and a prominent human rights lawyer.

Donors also expressed concern about new regulations they said would place restrictions on the news media and non-governmental groups.

“The government of Vietnam has to allow media to scrutinise the power. The NGOs should be encouraged, not discouraged, to act as watchdogs” to help the country achieve its ambition of becoming an industrial nation by 2020, said Bergman.

Michalak said a government regulation known as Decision 97, issued in September, limits the ability of independent research organisations to publish findings critical of government policy.

“It makes Vietnam less attractive to foreign partners, especially but not exclusively in the field of education,” he said.

Research and free expression would be further limited under a revised Decree 88 on associations, the US said in a written statement. It urged the government to pass a law that does not discourage “the rapid growth of civil society resulting from economic liberalisation”.

Vietnam, on the brink of becoming a middle-income nation, is also proposing to fine media agencies for infractions including publication of information “not conforming to the interests of the nation” and “propaganda” against the state.

“We strongly recommend that the government ensure that any new legislation and regulations regarding the role of civil society groups and media allows for greater participation of the people in the development of Vietnam, rather than placing additional restrictions and thereby risking progress,” Canadian ambassador Deanna Horton told the meeting. She also spoke on behalf of Norway, New Zealand and Switzerland.

Bergman, of Sweden, said that an “inclusive environment” would help the government in its battle against corruption.

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