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(New York) - The Vietnamese government's new media decree, which fines journalists for vague infractions and requires them to publish sources, is a further blow to freedom of expression in Vietnam, Human Rights Watch said today. Decree No. 2, Sanctions for Administrative Violations in Journalism and Publishing, goes into effect on February 25, 2011.

The decree, which Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung signed on January 6, stipulates fines from one million to 40 million dong (US$50-2,000) for journalists and newspapers that violate the decree's overly broad and vague provisions, such as failing to abide by the requirements of the 1990 Press Law (as amended in 1999) to "provide honest domestic and international news in accordance with the interests of the country and the people."

"The decree's vague and arbitrary provisions are a prescription for wide-ranging self-censorship," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The ‘interests of the country and the people' are best served by letting journalists publish honest news, not by punishing them."

Decree No. 2 authorizes many branches of government to impose fines on journalists and newspapers at any time, based on arbitrary determinations by officials at various levels and from numerous agencies of what constitutes "the interests of the country and the people." These include inspectors from the Ministry of Information and Communications, chairs of the People's Committees at all levels, the police force, the border army, the marine police, customs and tax officials, market management inspectors, and others.

"In any country, authorizing officials from multiple departments and levels to regulate media content and impose fines would be a disaster, but this is especially dangerous in Vietnam, where corruption is deep-seated and endemic," Robertson said. "Instead of being used to improve journalistic standards, this law will become yet another way for local officials to fatten their own purses."

Article 7 of the decree imposes fines on journalists who fail to publish their sources of information in newspapers. It also sets out fines of between 10 million and 20 million dong (US$500-1,000) for journalists and newspapers if they "use documents and materials from organizations and personal letters and materials from individuals, without clearly stating the sources of such information, related to cases under investigation, cases that have not been brought to trial, ‘negative' cases (cac vu viec tieu cuc), or cases where there are indications that laws have been broken but the relevant state offices have not yet issued conclusions."

"The new media decree appears designed to intimidate whistle-blowers and victims of rights abuses from cooperating with the media," Robertson said. "It will discourage them from providing information to journalists for fear of being exposed and then targeted for reprisals by authorities."

Decree No. 2 appears to conflict with another Vietnamese law, the 1990 Press Law, which states in article 7 that "the press has the right and duty not to disclose the names of those who provide information if it is harmful to them, unless requested by the Head of the People's Procuracy or the Judge of the People's Court at the provincial and equivalent level or higher, for investigation and trial of serious criminal cases."

Decree No. 2 is likely to deepen the already pervasive censorship in the country and the repression of journalists and bloggers with independent views, Human Rights Watch said. Vietnam already bans publications that oppose the government, divulge broadly defined "state secrets," or disseminate "reactionary" ideas. There are few privately owned media outlets; most publications are issued by the government, the Communist Party, or party-controlled mass organizations.

Journalists who cross the vague line set by the government are often punished harshly, Human Rights Watch said. For example, on October 15, 2008, the People's Court of Hanoi sentenced Nguyen Viet Chien, a reporter for the newspaper Thanh Nien (Youth), to two years in prison and Nguyen Van Hai, a reporter for the newspaper Tuoi Tre (Young Age), to a two-year suspended sentence for "abusing democratic rights" under penal code article 258. Both reporters were prosecuted for their coverage of the high-profile PMU 18 corruption case, which involved the Transportation Ministry's mishandling of official development assistance from Japan. Four other journalists were stripped of their press cards in connection with the case.

In 2009, two other reporters from Tuoi Tre, Phan Que and Vo Hong Quynh, were suspended for six months for covering a corruption case involving the construction of the Rusalka resort center in Nha Trang.

Despite such restrictions, reporters from the state media often manage to carry out innovative investigative journalism, particularly regarding corruption by government officials at the local level, Human Rights Watch said. For instance, Thanh Tra (Inspection) published an investigation in November 2010 of the Van Cao - Ho Tay road project in Hanoi, and Nha Bao & Cong Luan (Journalists and Public Opinion) reported on environmental pollution in Tu Liem district in Hanoi in December.

"The Vietnamese government should recognize that a prosperous economy also requires freedom of the press, and let reporters do their jobs, not obstruct them," Robertson said. "The new decree is a throwback to the past, aimed at punishing independent reporting and promoting the return of government propaganda."

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