Freedom of expression and press is always a global issue. It not only concerns leaders of all nations but also a basic human right, a fundamental need in any country during the process of development, particularly in this era of the information explosion. However, in a specific political regime, the connotation of freedom of expression and press (and the wider media) is understood differently, due to different approaches and even the opposing political motivations of various interest groups.
Common perceptions about freedom of expression and press
Freedom of expression and press is one of the fundamental human goals, to obtain their right to information, public discussion, communication, reflecting the people’s will and aspirations publicly through the mass media.
Besides the development of the printing industry - with the invention of printers in 1810 and printing ink in 1814 - the birth of print in the West went hand-in-hand with the birth and development of capitalism, aimed at popularizing the bourgeois democratic ideology, opposing the harsh feudal regime, pushing for scientific and technological development and building civil society in European countries. Therefore, the press was born out of the urgent need for the political regime’s development; the demand by the bourgeois social stratum for a tool through which they could express their opinions and aspirations about issues of social concern. In other words, the need for freedom of expression meant the need for a free press.
During the evolution of capitalism, which has witnessed the emergence and development of the press over hundreds of years, it can be said that the press now has several major functions: informing, reflecting, creating public opinions, directing public opinions, enhancing intellectual standards of the people; entertaining…
The press was born in a capitalist society and designed on the basis of bourgeois democratic ideology to protest against the feudal regime’s obstruction. This was a major act of historical progress. In a political regime where the state governs society through law, all social activities were expected to abide by the law. As a result, press activities were not excluded from this requirement. But law in a capitalist regime is the reflection of the will of the bourgeois class. They use the state apparatus to maintain social order in the interests of the bourgeois class, a minority of the population. For this reason, there is no pure freedom of expression and press outside the control of the bourgeois state. This fact has been intentionally ignored to criticize other countries while in capitalist countries numerous violations of freedom of expression and press still occur.
It should be said that freedom of press in its genuine sense can only be obtained on a basis of democratic society; all press activities should serve the mass’s interests. There can’t be freedom of press in an authoritarian, fascist, and arbitrary society. In places where all anti-fascist progressive newspapers are closed, freedom of expression and press in the people’s legitimate interest will never be achieved.
In the early stages of capitalism, a new bourgeois class arose to oppose the feudal class. The press propagandized the bourgeois democratic ideology and bourgeois law, successfully encouraging the construction of a bourgeois democratic society. However, when the bourgeois class has already established their rule, controlling the press-laws became a useful tool which served the interests of the minority exploiters. To defend their rule, the bourgeois class created newspapers that protected the capitalist regime as “progressive”, and newspapers that reflected the resistant voices of the majority people were labelled as “reactionary”. Working-class newspapers which newly emerged in the political arena and advocated a society free of human exploitation were also considered reactionary! Various bourgeois administrations issued severe laws, including press laws stipulating taboos. Every issue could be covered, except for “the right of private ownership”, because according to the Constitution compiled by them, “private ownership is a sacred and inalienable right” (!)
This fact shows that when the ruling class still plays a progressive role in history, freedom of expression and the press play an important role in social development. And, on the contrary, when the ruling class becomes a force that hinders society’s progress, “freedom of expression” cannot be obtained, in the literal meaning of this phrase. By analyzing subjective and objective conditions in any political regime and society, it can be said that there is no pure freedom of expression and press; not to mention the so-called “absolute freedom of press” as the bourgeois class claims.
Is the capitalist society a “role model of freedom of press”?
In capitalist society, the press operates in accordance with bourgeois law. What they call “freedom of press” has been truncated in the interests of the ruling class. For example:
The US Constitution stipulates that Congress has no right to issue any document that limits freedom of the press and speech. However, in 1789 the US Congress passed an Act that said the writing, printing, and delivering of any untruthful, offensive or malicious documents against the government were crimes. In addition, article 2385, chapter 115 of the US criminal law prohibits all acts of printing, publishing, editing, broadcasting, circulating, trading, distributing or displaying any written or printed documents which campaign, incite, or teach the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying the government of the United States or the government of any State, Territory, District or Possession thereof, or the government of any political subdivision therein, by force or violence. According to the US Constitution, the Supreme Court is allowed to issue legal punishment when the press is found to have committed acts of sabotaging, insulting, slandering, and mocking the state, society or individuals. As a result, hundreds of documents of various sizes are issued annually by the Supreme Court in the US to manage and control the press. Furthermore, in accordance with the states’ constitutions, the prosecution of cases for abusing freedom of expression and press is legal.
The laws of other countries, in principle, acknowledge freedom of press and speech, but do not consider it an “absolute freedom”. Article 36 of the Kyrgyzstan Constitution declares “free communications”, but concretizes this declaration in article 17: “The Constitution and law of the Kyrgyz Republic limits the execution of rights and freedom. Rights are only permitted in the case of protecting the rights and freedom of others, ensuring social safety and order, territorial integrity and safeguarding constitutional order. But during the implementation process, the spirit of constitutional rights and freedom rights should not be allowed to be affected”. Article 8 of the Senegalese Constitution acknowledges the protection of freedom of expression and press, but considers these rights “subjects to adjustments and limitations of law and legal regulations”. This completely corresponds to the UN 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights, whose article 29 states that “in the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society”.
These examples show that no single country in the world considers “freedom of expression” and “freedom of the press” as absolutes. Following the disclosure of a phone hacking scandal and stories related to violations of professional ethics by a British leading tabloid, News of the World, owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, which was forced to close in 2011, the British Government had to come to a decision about stricter censorship over the country’s media.
According to new regulations, the British Government will establish a media monitoring organization, which is authorized to issue bans, perpetual suspension of publications and fines of up to 1 million British pounds (1.5 million USD), and force offending newspapers to publish apology on front pages. This organization is also authorized to force newspapers to print a prominent front-page apology for publishing inaccurate information as well as pay the arbitrating or court fees to their victims. The Times, one of the newspapers with the highest circulation, called this deal “a dark chapter in the UK’s freedom of press”. The Daily Mail said that for the first time since the 17th century had the British press seen such deep political intervention!
Recently, a film called “The Innocence of Muslims”, which was perceived as denigrating Muslim, was made available in the market by an American filmmaker. It immediately caused demonstrations and violent protests. Death, bloodshed, destroyed churches and blockaded US embassies in many countries were the results of outrage and strong protests by Muslims all over the world. To this end, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said: “Freedoms of expression should be and must be guaranteed and protected, when they are used for common justice, common purpose... When some people use this freedom of expression to provoke or humiliate some others' values and beliefs, then this cannot be protected in such a way".
Freedom of press in Vietnam
In its legal aspects, all Vietnam’s constitutional have so far (1946, 1959, 1980, 1992) included regulations on freedom of expression and press, saying this one of the most fundamental rights of the people and all citizens. With each redrafting of the Constitution these regulations are inherited and developed to match Vietnam’s specific conditions and historical circumstances.
Article 10 of the 1946 Constitution, the first Constitution of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, stipulated the freedom of press: “Vietnamese citizens have the right to freedom of expression, publication, organization and assembly, religion, and to stay and travel both within the country and overseas”.
Inheriting such an important principle from the first Constitution since the establishment of the country, the 1959, 1980 and 1992 Constitutions confirmed and supplemented the connotation of freedom of expression and press, while also including the rights and responsibilities of citizens and the social responsibilities of journalists. Article 33 of the 1992 Constitution stipulates: “The State develops the work regarding information, press, broadcast, cinematography, publication, libraries and other mass media. Cultural and information activities that damage the national interest and undermine the dignity, ethics and fine lifestyles of the Vietnamese people are prohibited”. Article 69 states: “Citizens shall enjoy freedom of opinion and speech, freedom of the press, the right to be informed, and the right to assemble, form associations and hold strikes in accordance with the provisions of the law”. In the draft revision to the 1992 Constitution, the above-mentioned basic rights and duties of citizens are once again confirmed.
The 1999 Law on the Press, in Article 2, underlines the State’s responsibility in creating favourable conditions for citizens to exercise their rights to freedom of the press and freedom of expression via the media…The press and journalists operate in accordance with the law and are protected by the State; no organization or individual is allowed to limit or obstruct the press and journalists in their operations. Nobody is allowed abuse the rights to freedom of the press and freedom of expression via the media to infringe the interests of the State, collectives and citizens. The press is not subject to censorship before being printed and broadcast.
President Hồ Chí Minh, the founder of Vietnam’s revolutionary press, respected the upholding of freedom of thought and expression. He spoke in a simple and plain manner about the dialectic relationship between freedom of expression and citizens’ responsibilities: “Our regime is a democratic regime, thought should be free. What is freedom like? In all issues, everyone freely express their opinions to help discern the universal truth. It is the right and duty of everyone. When people speak their opinions and discover universal truths, the right to freedom of thought turns out to be the right of the freedom to comply with the universal truth. Universal truth is anything that is beneficial to the fatherland and people. What goes against the interest of the fatherland and people is not universal truth. Wholeheartedly serving the fatherland and people means complying with the universal truth”(1). This was the sincere and profound advice of Uncle Ho to genuine journalists.
Regarding the duty of the press, Article 6 of the 1999 Law on the Press states: “Reflecting and directing public opinion; being forums for the people to exercise their right to freedom of expression”. The people have the right to “access and provide information to press agencies and journalists; send news stories, reports, photos and other material to press agencies without being censored by any organization or individuals and be responsible before law for the content of that information; contribute opinions to formulating the Party’s guidelines and policies and the State’s laws; give feedback, criticize, recommend, complain and denounce via media Party organizations, state agencies, social organizations and their members” (Article 4). This is the nature of press activity in Vietnam, vividly demonstrating the pre-eminence of the socialist press: freedom of the press to serve the interests of the majority of the people; freedom of the press to maintain the socio-political stability of the country, contributing to building a wealthy people and a strong, democratic and civilized country.
Those who lack good will say that in Vietnam there is no freedom of press because there is no private press (!). They deliberately ignore the fact that in the recent past, the Vietnamese press has made a giant leap forward in terms of quantity, formats, publications, the number of media practitioners, and quantity of audiences, technological facilities, financial capacity, and the various communication agencies’ increased positive impact on society. Almost all ministries, branches, sectors and organizations from central to local level, social classes and strata, professional associations, circles and major religions have their own newspapers.
By February 2013, Vietnam had 812 print agencies with 1,084 publications, including 197 agencies running newspapers (84 central and 113 local newspapers); 615 agencies had reviews (488 central and 127 local reviews). There were 67 central and local radio-TV stations, including 2 national broadcasting stations, 1 digital TV station, 64 provincial radio-TV stations, 172 radio - and advertising-TV channels (99 TV channels and 73 radio channels). In addition to advertising-TV, the Pay TV system has developed sharply, with a variety of transmission possibilities such as cable, satellite, terrestrial digital and IPTV, which is presently being piloted. Regarding electronic information, Vietnam has 74 online newspapers and magazines, 336 social networks, and 1,174 general online news-pages. The Vietnam Journalists Association manages more than 19,000 members, of whom 17,000 have been granted professional licenses and are working in hundreds of press agencies at central and local levels. The association always encourages and creates the conditions for journalists to work freely and creatively in accordance with the law.
In Vietnam, the press has truly been the organ of the Party, State, political, social and professional organizations; a forum and an important tool to protect the interests and rights to freedom for people from all walks of life. Everyone has the right to express their aspirations, opinions and recommendations on all aspects of our social life via the mass media, including the press. Furthermore, by working for or being a member of an organization, a person is provided with a publication of that organization to make sure that all his/her demands and rights to be informed are met. That’s why, the majority of social strata in Vietnam find it unnecessary to have a privately-published newspaper.
Since the Communist Party of Vietnam initiated and led the cause of national renewal and international integration, information-freedom, publicity and transparency have been increasingly respected by the State, which has created favourable conditions for the operation of the mass media. One of the activities that has won domestic and international acclaim are the live Q&A sessions between National Assembly deputies and cabinet members, including the Prime Minister, that have been broadcast on the radio and TV stations for the past two decades. Over the years, the media have broadcast live symposiums from the National Assembly Standing Committee. During the meetings of the provincial or municipal people’s councils nationwide, Q&A sessions have also been covered live.
While implementing the Resolution of the 4th plenum of the 11th Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam, all ministers have strictly fulfilled their duties to “answer the people’s questions” via regular online talks. Over the years, the Government has asked ministries and sectors to appoint a “spokesperson” who is in charge of providing up-to-date information and addressing people’s concerns about a specific sector or organization; replying to queries published in the “Readers’ column” of many media agencies regarding any major events in any sector or any revelations of serious wrongdoings unveiled by the press. To meet the people’s new demands for greater publicity and transparency of information, the Prime Minister has just issued detailed regulations for a mechanism of expression and information-provision for the press, to be introduced to ministries, ministerial-level agencies, government-affiliated agencies, and the people’s committees of the centrally-administered provinces or cities, in accordance with the current laws and regulations on press activities. The Government Office supplies information to the press once a month regarding the Government’s activities and performance. Ministries, ministerial-level agencies, Government agencies, and people’s committees of the centrally-administered provinces and cities supply information to the press detailing their activities every month. They also organize press conferences at least once every three months. In addition, the regulations state that the spokesperson is responsible for making statements and providing timely and accurate information to the press in the following 3 extraordinary cases: first, when he/she finds it necessary to inform - via the media - events and important issues in order to issue prompt warnings and direct public opinion; second, when press agencies or state agencies that oversee the press demand statements or the supply of information on events and issues under the management of an agency; third, when there is a clue that the press has published inaccurate information on issues within the management of an agency so as to demand that the press agency publish feedback or correction in accordance with law.
Playing the role of reflecting and participating in social criticism, the press has become an increasingly important channel for functional agencies to use in order to supplement and complete guidelines and decisions of the Party and the policies and laws of the State, which should be relevant to people’s lives. In addition to publicizing and celebrating new achievements, good people and good deeds, the press has actively joined the effective fight against corruption, bureaucracy and social vices, winning the sympathy and support of the people.
Implementing the guidelines of the Party Central Committee and the National Assembly on amendments and supplements to the 1992 Constitution, the recent collection of public opinion on the draft constitutional revision has been a widespread democratic, political drive in the society. Cadres, party members and people from all social strata have enthusiastically responded to and actively contributed their sincere, frank and responsible opinions on almost all chapters and articles of the Draft. The press has been a key means to publicize tens of millions of opinions during the process.
Freedom of the press is relative in any society because freedom of the press should be exercised in accordance with the law, guided by law and suitable to the specific historical conditions of each country. We are striving to build a free press, in which journalists are free to work and dedicate their creativity to the public conscientiously and while remaining aware of the responsibilities of a genuine journalist to the interests of national development. However, this doesn’t mean being freed to arbitrarily write anything. A journalist is ruled over not only by law, but also by his/her conscience, responsibilities and political enlightenment. There can’t be “absolute freedom of the press”. Freedom of creativity in the press is reflected in the fact that a journalist should provide true and accurate information for social progress and for the benefit of the majority of people. Importantly, regardless of legal regulation, each journalist - while dealing with a news story or an event - should weigh the pros and cons and answer the question: Whether or not (and when it is the appropriate time), to inform or comment on that event if it is detrimental to national interests.
Opportunists and hostile forces have spread the news: “Vietnam suppresses dissidents” (!). This is a sheer fabrication and slander. In fact several people have faced administrative or legal processes due to their use of the mass-media to distort and cook up information in order to incite protests against the Vietnamese Party and State. Recent several “hot” incidents in the East Sea, Mường Nhé (Điện Biên); Con Cuông (Nghệ An); Tiên Lãng (Hải Phòng); Văn Giang (Hưng Yên)...require journalists to reflect on their noble social responsibilities, conduct thorough analysis of the facts to find out the nature of facts and deicide the timing and volume of information which best serves the people’s practical interests. This also contributes to the socio-political stability of the country, creating an important base for boosting the cause of renewal and international integration; winning the widespread sympathy and support of foreign friends for Vietnam.
Reality has proved that in Vietnam there is genuine freedom of expression and the press based on a journalist’s strict compliance with the law and upholding their social responsibilities and duties as citizens during national construction and defence. If someone deliberately takes advantage of democracy and freedom of expression and press to publicly oppose the Party and State and runs counter to national interests, he/she will be dealt with equally and strictly by the administration or law. This is evident and not different from any independent, sovereign country!
(1) Hồ Chí Minh: Complete works, National Politics Publishing House, Hanoi, 2002, vol. 8, p. 216