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.
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Donors say Vietnam should respect rights

HANOI (Reuters) – Aid donors urged Vietnam on Thursday to unleash the press to help fight corruption and to respect international human rights norms, or risk negatively impacting investment and aid flows.

“Vietnam’s economic performance and its international reputation are compromised by restrictions placed by the government on the personal freedoms of its citizens,” a statement by the U.S. delegation to an annual donor summit in Hanoi said.

Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party brooks no opposition, and in the past year has detained or jailed several reporters, bloggers, lawyers and dissidents, and deployed an administrative decree to bring down the country’s only independent policy think-tank.

The party recognises widespread corruption as a major impediment to development, but restricts the media’s ability to ferret out cases.

The United Nations said governments must “own” the battle against corruption, but others would make it more effective.

“Broadening the scope for collaboration and involvement of non-State actors such as the media, mass organisations and individuals makes anti-corruption efforts more effective,” it said in its report to the meeting, called the Consultative Group.

Sweden, as president of the European Union, went further.

“The government of Vietnam has to allow media to scrutinise the power,” it said.

“Researchers, journalists and lawyers have to be encouraged to raise their voices to be able to contribute to the future of Vietnam. They should not be silenced or discouraged. Recently, however, worrying signs seem to indicate that the development is going in the wrong direction.” U.S. Ambassador Michael Michalak also noted in prepared remarks that recent events “have contributed to a shrinking of the space for honest, reliable information”.

“Access to reliable, objective information; the ability to conduct research freely and publish one’s findings; the right to articulate and consider differing views — are absolutely essential to technical innovation and economic prosperity.”

(Reporting by John Ruwitch; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)

Donors pledge $5 bln soft loans, grants to Vietnam

Vo Hong Phuc, Minister of Planning and Investment in Vietnam and Consultative Group co-chairman, left, listens as James W. Adams, vice president of the World Bank and Consultative Group co-chairman, right, speaks during closing session in Consultative Group Meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, Friday, Dec. 5, 2008. (AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki)

Vo Hong Phuc, Minister of Planning and Investment in Vietnam and Consultative Group co-chairman, left, listens as James W. Adams, vice president of the World Bank and Consultative Group co-chairman, right, speaks during closing session in Consultative Group Meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, Friday, Dec. 5, 2008. (AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki)

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — International aid donors pledged $5 billion in low-interest loans and grants to Vietnam on Friday, with the total falling slightly from last year because Japan has frozen aid until the communist country takes effective measures to tackle corruption.

Last year, donors pledged $5.4 billion in official development assistance to booming Vietnam, which has recorded economic growth of at least 7 percent annually over the past decade.

On Thursday, Japan, which has provided more development aid than any other country to Vietnam, said it would make no new loans to Vietnam next year.

The announcement came after four Japanese executives pleaded guilty last month to paying $820,000 in bribes to a Vietnamese official overseeing a highway project in Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s southern commercial and financial hub.

Tokyo has said it would only resume providing aid to Vietnam when effective anti-corruption measures are in place.

Other donors also raised concern about corruption, as well as the recent arrests of two Vietnamese journalists.

“The events of the last six months have raised concerns with respect to whether the media is being encouraged to actively report on corruption within the government,” said James Adams, vice president of the World Bank.

Minister of Planning and Investment Vo Hong Phuc replied that the journalists “were arrested for breaching laws, not because they were fighting corruption.”

Phuc praised international donors for their support in the face of a deepening global economic downturn.

“In spite of difficult times and the financial crisis, most countries have increased their aid commitment to Vietnam,” Phuc said. “This reflects the donors’ support for the policies of the Vietnamese government.”

The World Bank became the largest aid donor, with a pledge of $1.66 billion, and the Asian Development Bank pledged $1.57 billion. The European Union will give $893 million.

Over the past three years, donors have pledged a total of $13.6 billion in development aid to Vietnam, of which over $6 billion has been spent, mostly on infrastructure projects, according to the government.

Vietnam still slack on anti-graft: int’l donors

International donors are concerned there’s not enough being done to fight corruption in Vietnam, a meeting on anticorruption measures in Hanoi heard Friday.

The Counselor of the Dutch Embassy, Van Loosdrecht, said despite a turn around in anti-graft in the country the fight was mostly being targeted at corruption at the grassroots level.

Donors at the meeting said that Vietnam had established special legal institutions but was still not doing enough work to combat graft, while a Finish Embassy representative pointed out the potential conflict of interest of appointing provincial mayors as chairs of their anti-corruption steering committees.

In addition media agencies in Vietnam have limited access to information in order to combat corruption, international delegates said.

“In recent years, Vietnam has made progress… and there are now pockets of excellence within the state media.

But myriad problems persist which, if not tackled, will severely reduce the media’s ability to combat corruption,” former journalist and Senior International Consultant Catherine McKinley said.

She said these problems included: inconsistent and poorly implemented legislation, a shortage of financing options, outdated and poorly resourced training facilities.”

However, the Government Inspectorate Chief Tran Van Truyen said the assessment that anticorruption in Vietnam is slacking up is due to a lack of information.

He said the anti-corruption steering committees were conducting investigations more thoroughly, which was why they were handling fewer cases.

He stated that no one, no matter how high the position, was immune to investigation and the law.

Vietnam will soon list categories of classified information – with only national security-related documents to be kept secret, Truyen said.

The government is also focusing on intensifying asset disclosure, making information, policies and administrative procedures more transparent, and improving the media’s role in the fight, he noted.

East-West Highway corruption probe

The country’s international image has been damaged by the case of a Ho Chi Minh City official who allegedly received bribes from executives of Japan’s Pacific Consultants International (PCI), the office manager of the Central Anti-Corruption Steering Committee, Vu Tien Chien, told reporters on the sideline of the meeting.

Last week, HCMC authorities suspended Huynh Ngoc Si, deputy head of the Department of Transport and chief of the East-West Highway and HCMC Water Environment Project while they investigate claims made in a Tokyo court that Si had taken more than US$2 million in bribes from PCI in exchange for helping the firm win consulting contracts in the highway project.

The government is actively tackling the case in an unbiased manner according to Vietnamese and international laws, Chien said, adding that the Central Anti-Corruption Steering Committee is closely following the case.

World Bank warning

In related news the World Bank (WB) would stop lending money to Vietnam if it discovered any wrongdoings regarding official development assistance (ODA) funding, the acting Country Director of the World Bank in Vietnam, Martin Rama warned Friday at a press briefing about the Consultative Group Meeting slated for December 4-5 in Hanoi.

WB has committed to offer more assistance to Vietnam, Rama said.

Early this year, Vietnam was put on the list of five developing countries with low incomes which will annually receive WB preferential loans of $1.5 billion over the next three years, the WB country director said.

Reported by Bao Van