Today marks World Press Freedom Day. As with all international days, it is an annual opportunity to discuss, educate, and reaffirm our understanding of a significant aspect of human life and history. On this day we recognize the vital nature of a free press to any functioning and flourishing democracy. We evaluate the state of press freedom in today’s world, celebrate the achievements of journalistic courage and endeavor, remember those who gave their lives in the name of their profession, and fight for those who suffer under tyranny because of it.
May 3 was designated World Press Freedom Day by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993, following a recommendation adopted at UNESCO’S General Conference in 1991. Earlier that same year, from April 29 to May 3, 63 independent African journalists from 38 countries gathered in the Namibian capital of Windhoek for a UNESCO seminar entitled “Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Media.” They met amidst an environment of growing violence and harassment of journalists, to discuss and promote the essential role of a free, independent and pluralistic media in a functioning democracy. The participants sought to codify the importance of press freedom, independence and pluralism. This now-historic event culminated in the signing of the Windhoek Declaration, a crucial affirmation of the international community’s faith and commitment in the necessity of freedom of the press and freedom of expression.
It is in accordance with the spirit of the day, Freedom Now reflects on the story of brave journalist and blogger – Nguyen Van Hoa. Hoa dared to perform his duties in Vietnam, a country that routinely threatens, intimidates, and imprisons journalists who write independent of their censorship. This blog post outlines the importance of press freedom during the pandemic and beyond by offering an explanation of what Vietnamese society loses through government attacks on journalists.
The Formosa Disaster
In December 2012, the Formosa Plastics Group, a Taiwanese company, built a large iron and steelmaking factory in the port city of Ky Anh on the north central coast of Vietnam. The project was already unpopular locally, as many local citizens were concerned over China’s growing influence in their country. However, tensions would spill over in a devastating way less than four years later when, on April 6, 2016, a local fisherman discovered a waste disposal pipe pumping toxic yellow liquid directly from the factory into the sea.
Above the mouth of the pipe, the water was covered with dead and dying fish. The following day, reports began to emerge of fish miles away that had suddenly fallen sick and died. Soon, the shorelines along the central coast of Vietnam were strewn with dead fish. A local fisherman who dived in the nearby water was rushed to hospital where he subsequently died. People who ingested the poisoned fish were hospitalized, and many died. One couple was diagnosed with cancer after working for Formosa. Many other others have reported health problems linked to the dumping. An estimated 115 tons of fish were killed, and over 125 miles of Vietnam’s central coastline was poisoned, affecting four Vietnamese provinces: Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri, and Thua Thien-Hue.
The Government’s Response
Initially, officials claimed there was no evidence that the devastation was caused by Formosa, with the Natural Resources and Environment Deputy Minister Vo Tuan Nhan claiming that the damage and deaths were caused by an increase in a form of red algae. On April 27, at one of the first press conferences following the disaster, Minister Vo claimed no connection between Formosa and the disaster could be inferred based on available evidence. He was then asked to comment on the high levels of metal found in the water, to which he replied, “Don’t ask that question. That question damages our country.” Formosa themselves denied involvement, taking nearly three months to admit guilt. An executive claimed that the Vietnamese people could either have fish or steel, not both. Ultimately, Formosa pledged $500 million to clean up the mess from the spill and compensate those who lives had been affected by the dumping.
The devastation to marine life, the environment and the local communities that rely on fish stocks and tourism for their livelihoods, are now known as the Formosa Disaster, widely considered to be one of Vietnam’s largest environmental catastrophes.
The People’s Response
Protests soon began over the government’s handling of the amount, as well as the rate at which people were receiving compensation. On April 28, when the red algae story was officially dismissed, protests began in Canh Duong, a beach community, as fishermen shut down the local highway and demanded Formosa be expelled from Vietnam. The officials responded by arresting human rights defenders, journalists and bloggers who tried to raise awareness of the ongoing events. By May 1, protests spread across Vietnam, reaching the capital city of Hanoi. Protestors carried banners with slogans stating “I choose fish” and “Formosa Out!”
Amplifying Voices, Providing Accountability
Nguyen Van Hoa was twenty-one years old and working as a citizen journalist for Radio Free Asia at the time of the disaster. He was a part of a larger group of journalists and bloggers looking to raise awareness of the waste spill, as well as call attention to government failure and inaction. In October 2016, he was first on the scene to shoot footage of a peaceful protest of 10,000 people, calling for immediate action from outside the Formosa factory. He then shared his footage on social media.
Within a month, he was being targeted by the authorities. In November 2016, Hoa was beaten and his equipment was stolen. On the January 11, 2017 he was arrested at his home. His family were not told of his whereabouts and they reported him missing. Only after his family put together a petition to ascertain his whereabouts did the local authorities inform them of incarceration. He was initially charged under a notorious law used to punish journalists and dissenters: article 258 of the 1999 penal code for “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe on the interests of the state,” an offense that carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison. Four months later, these charges were upgraded to “disseminating propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam”, a crime that allows the state to restrict his freedom for up to decade.
After spending 11 months in pre-trial detention, Hoa was convicted in November 2017 in a trial that lasted two and a half hours, was closed to the public, and did not allow him to have a lawyer present. The prosecution claimed Hoa was the main organizer of the anti-Formosa protests, describing him as a “high-tech criminal who used many tricks to hinder the investigation,” He was also accused of working for foreign organizations that were never identified during the trial.
Throughout his detention, Hoa has been subjected to solitary confinement and beatings, one of which was intended to force him into signing a confession indicting a fellow journalist.
Freedom Now has worked to elevate Hoa’s case and draw attention to his unjust imprisonment by engaging with various UN bodies, facilitating his adoption by the U.S. House of Representative’s Defending Freedoms Project, and nominating him for the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize.
Press Freedom in Vietnam
Contrary to the values of World Press Freedom Day, Vietnam is a country that has greatly restricted journalists. Reporters Without Borders ranks Vietnam as 175 out of 180 countries in their World Press Freedom Index. The Constitution recognizes freedom of the press, but in practice, there is very little space for independent journalism. Moreover, print and broadcast media throughout Vietnam is owned by and aligned with the Communist Party.
The only source of independent opinion and non-party voices are freelance journalists and bloggers. However, independent reporters are constantly subjected to harassment and violence, sometimes by plainclothes police. The authorities also use oppressive laws and decrees to maintain a stranglehold on expression. Three laws found in the country’s criminal code stand out and are worth noting. They state “activities aimed at overthrowing the government,” “anti-state propaganda” and “abusing the rights to freedom and democracy to threaten the interests of the state” all carry long prison sentences. It is essentially illegal to criticize the government, deny the achievements of the revolution, or spread of “reactionary ideologies.”
Due to the oppressive and stifling space for freedom of expression, many people in Vietnam turn to online spaces for journalism. As internet usage increases in Vietnam, the authorities have also taken to police the internet. Decree 72, passed in 2013, gave new power to the authorities to censor online speech. A 10,000-person “internet army” called Force 47 are tasked with defending the ruling party from non-state sanctioned information and countering the activities of dissidents and bloggers. In 2020, the authorities took Facebook offline until the social media site agreed to censor articles and limit access to content that were considered “anti-state” and therefore illegal. After seven weeks of pressure, Facebook agreed to do so.
World Press Freedom Day 2021 is taking place during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has shown precisely why the dissemination of accurate information serves a vital role in saving lives. Every day, we rely on reports to keep us informed of the current state of the virus, as well as government measures in place to stop the spread. Journalists have put themselves in the way of real physical and psychological harm to ensure the public has the most reliable information on how to stay safe. Vital work has been done to ensure that the scientific data is portioned out in ways that are digestible and clear for the general consumption. Ensuring the public circulation of vital information has been the difference between life and death during the pandemic.
However, in a cruel irony, many factors of the pandemic have put further strain on an already struggling communications ecosystem. Governments have increased pressure on journalists, having them arrested or even jailed for their reporting on their handling of the pandemic. Online censorship has increased, as well as threats to those who share information. On top of this pressure, for many news outlets, an already difficult economic system has become worse. Economic fallout from the pandemic has hit many industries, and news is one of them. Alongside the pandemic, the decline of advertising in newspapers and the move towards social media, has spelt tragedy for many local news organizations.
At the same time, whilst information has saved lives and empowered people, disinformation and misinformation has done the opposite. The UN has suggested that we are currently also living in an “infodemic”, with such a deluge of information, some right, some wrong, that it has created an almost impossible atmosphere for accurate information and real journalism to be heard. Few internet providers and search engines are transparent about their search algorithms, and the role they play in filtering this process. Within this void of truth, conspiracy theories can thrive. Fragmentation and polarization have led to many losing faith in journalism, thought-leaders and even in truth itself.
The Public Good Aspect
World Press Freedom Day 2021 is based around the theme of “Information as a Public Good”. Precisely what is a public good? A pure public good is the type of good that satisfies two conditions; it is non-excludable and it is non-rivalrous.
What do these concepts mean? Non-excludability is when the price for excluding, or preventing, a person from enjoying the good is prohibitively high. A classic example is fresh air. One cannot package and sell fresh air (even though some people have apparently started to try). One cannot build a wall around fresh air and charge people an entry fee.
For a good to be non-rivalrous, the good must not be degraded or used up through consumption. The cost of allowing another to enjoy the use of the product is virtually nothing. An example of this is radio. Broadcasting costs money but allowing people to tune in costs virtually no extra.
Information is non-excludable when consume a fact – whether you have paid for it or not. Whilst university professors could exclude people from their lectures via attendance and ticket sales, they cannot exclude the information they have imparted on their audience being spread through society. It is true that there are artificial means to ensure some form of excludability, such as subscription fees, copyright, secrecy and direct censorship, but the information itself is non-excludable. Information is also inherently non-rivalrous. The enjoyment of a fact does not affect or degrade its enjoyment. Nor are individuals prevented from enjoying the fact just because thousands of others have also enjoyed it.
However, due to the fact that public goods cannot be packaged and sold to those who wish to pay for them, they are very often under-supplied by the market, and thus require public support, both from government and civil society.
Take flood defenses, for example. Since individuals in flood-prone areas clearly benefit from such structures, regardless of whether they had a direct role in construction, they could be inclined to not pay for these defenses. This is a classic free-rider problem. Many of the benefits information has given us throughout the pandemic has been disseminated by journalists and news teams, however, many of us have paid nothing for their hard work.
One way to show why this is important and positive for societies is to show the externalities or spill-overs of accurate information. An externality is the result or effects of an action performed by one individual or firm on an outside party, that the resultant party does not pay for. Simply put, it is a cost or benefit that results from an action that is not paid for or received by the acting party. These can be either positive or negative. For example, pollution is a negative externality. Polluting organizations infer costs on those who breathe their polluted air or drink polluted water, yet they pay these people nothing to reimburse their costs. A positive example could be if you own a beautiful home, and you cultivate your garden. Passers-by gain an aesthetic benefit from your actions that they give you no price for.
Depriving Vietnamese Society of a Public Good
The Vietnamese government’s reaction to the Formosa disaster is a cascade of failures. The government failed to prevent the Formosa corporation from polluting, it failed to fully punish the perpetrators, and it failed to fully compensate the victims. The protesters wanted to call attention to how their government was treating them. They wanted to use their voices to bring out a shift in governmental effectiveness and policy. This was a non-violent way of asking for political accountability.
The wrongful imprisonment of Hoa is yet another example of how the Vietnamese government has failed its citizens by denying them a public good. There are three ways in which Hoa’s journalism contributed to the improvement of society.
First, Hoa highlighted both the government’s inaction, and amplified the voices of his fellow citizens in their discontents. If allowed to perform his job, then Hoa could have enabled the Vietnamese people to bring pressure down on the authorities and achieve the justice they deserved.
Second, Hoa was able to identify politicians who acted contrary to constituents’ best interests. This could lead to mass resignations of politicians who no longer have the trust of the individuals who elected them. Moreover, this could ensure that future politicians judge their actions more carefully, perhaps ensuring another Formosa catastrophe never happens again.
Finally, Hoa provided an opportunity for Vietnamese officials to enact a policy to prevent future ecological disasters. Hoa’s work would identify misconduct being performed by industries, factories and politicians, and therefore lead to misbehaving people being caught, forced to pay compensation and maybe arrested.
The aim of World Press Freedom Day is an annual reminder of the challenges facing a free press and what needs to been to overcome those challenges. This is why this year’s World Press Freedom Day is focusing on freedom as a public good, with real positive externalities, so that we can all be reminded, citizens and political actors, of the vital role a free, independent and diverse media can play. We must fend off these attacks, remind ourselves of the necessity of information for our society and ensure the free press is supported in places where their voices are being censored and silenced.