Towards a Free Media in Vietnam?


Every single newspaper, radio station, and television broadcast in Vietnam is officially controlled by the Vietnamese Communist Party or government. But thanks to social media and news outlets based outside the country, Vietnamese citizens are increasingly gaining access to independent sources of news.

Faced with a rapidly changing media landscape, Vietnam’s authorities rely on a combination of restrictive laws, Internet controls and outright repression to stifle the free flow of information. Vietnam is second in the world only to China in the number of jailed netizens. 

Given the economic impacts of a stifled Internet, online censorship is not only a human rights issue but increasingly a business issue. The business ramifications of Internet censorship have increasingly come to the forefront as the U.S. and Vietnamese governments negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). 

In marking World Press Freedom Day, join bloggers from Vietnam and other experts working to expand freedom of expression for a discussion on the challenges and opportunities in promoting a free media in Vietnam.

Confirmed speakers:

Vietnam-based bloggers and digital activists*

Le Thanh Tung (freelance journalist and digital activist)

Ngo Nhat Dang (freelance journalist and contributor to the BBC Vietnamese section)

Nguyen Dinh Ha (blogger and digital activist)

Nguyen Thi Kim Chi (actress, director and playwright)

To Oanh (blogger and former contributor to state-owned newspapers) 

Scott Busby, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Do Hoang Diem, Chairman, Viet Tan

Libby Liu, President, Radio Free Asia

Brett Solomon, Executive Director, Access

Meredith Whittaker, Program Manager, Google 

*Highlighting the challenges faced by Vietnam’s online community, Hanoi authorities blocked three of the invited activists from traveling: Pham Chi Dung, a writer and civil society advocate, had his passport arbitrarily confiscated in February and until now, has been banned from traveling; Nguyen Lan Thang, a blogger, was stopped at Hanoi Noi Bai Airport and prevented from boarding his flight on April 5; and Anna Huyen Trang, a citizen journalist for Vietnamese Redemptorists’ News, was stopped at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat Airport on April 13 and physically harassed by security police.

Date and time: Thursday, May 1st Time: 12:00 – 2:00pm (lunch will be served from 12:00 – 12:30pm) Location: Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St NW (Suite 300), Washington, DC. RSVP

The US State Department is “deeply concerned” by the Vietnamese authorities’ decision to uphold the conviction of human rights lawyer and blogger Le Quoc Quan to 30 months in prison on tax evasion charges. 

Quan was previously arrested in 2007 for three months on his return from a five-month Reagan-Fascell fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.


UGTT key to Tunisia’s ‘historic step toward democracy’

TUNISIA UGTTWhat has made Tunisia an exception compared to other severely tested Arab Spring countries? In other words, what has allowed Tunisia to avoid replicating the Egyptian scenario and to instead lay down the foundations of consensual legitimacy? asks Mohamed Kerrou, a nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center specializing in Islam and civil society in Tunisia and the Middle East.

Tunisia’s consensus was only possible thanks to an inclusive national dialogue brokered by the “Quartet”—an alliance between the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), the employers’ union, the Tunisian Bar Association, and the country’s Human Rights League, he writes for the Carnegie Endowment. A multitude of factors combined to make this dialogue a success despite Tunisia’s bumpy democratic transition, which, far from being completed, remains to be consolidated. In particular, four key factors explain the historic compromise reached in Tunisia: the army’s professional and apolitical status, the lessons learned from the Egyptian transition, civil society’s rallying behind the UGTT-led Quartet, and the conciliatory and decisive role played by political leaders.

Civil Society Activism: The General Union of Tunisian Workers

If Tamarod [the anti-Islamist (Rebel) Movement] had a different outcome in Tunisia than in Egypt, it is mainly due to Tunisia’s competing and better structured political forces within civil society. In recent years, Tunisia’s deeply rooted civil society has reinvigorated its resistance first to the tyranny of Ben Ali and, after the 2011 revolution, to the ruling Troika government, which tended to reproduce the same system of government as Ben Ali’s without reinstating a moral and political authority. A key pillar of Tunisian civil society is the country’s labor union, the UGTT. 

With a role tantamount to that of the army in Egypt, the UGTT derives its strength from its history and organizational structure. After its inception in the aftermath of World War II, the UGTT joined forces with the national movement and emerged as a political player. 

tunisia_ugtt(1)Shortly after Tunisia’s independence in 1956, the country’s hegemonic ruling party instituted one-party rule, claiming it was the only guarantee of national unity. Throughout the ensuing decades of partisan and autocratic rule, the UGTT has been a haven for members of the opposition, a platform where they can have their voices heard, claim their rights, and learn democracy. 

Far from being just a workers’ organization, the UGTT is an all-embracing body open to all professionals, be they teachers, doctors, or laborers, among others. It unites the poor segments of society as well as the middle classes, which together make up a significant portion of Tunisia’s population—the UGTT represents 1 million unionists out of a total population of more than 10 million people. A champion of economic and corporatist demands that serve different occupations and professions, the UGTT acts as the link between state and society. It is both a lobbying group and a grassroots organization that is more inclined toward dialogue than confrontation. 

Since the revolution, as Tunisia’s most powerful civil society organization, the UGTT opposed the Troika government without seeking to present itself as an alternative or to fight the ruling power. This opposition continued in spite of attacks on UGTT headquarters and supporters by the pro-Ennahda League for the Protection of the Revolution, which is comprised of groups of Salafists who have engaged in various violent incidents in Tunisia since 2011. 

The union’s leadership remains nonpartisan, but its base brings together people of all political stripes, including Destourians, Arab nationalists, leftists, and Islamists. The UGTT serves as a unifying organization that speaks on behalf of the masses, seeks to remain independent from political regimes, and champions social justice and freedom—key requirements of the anti-Troika revolution it has spearheaded despite its national leadership’s political alignment with the old regime.

In early 2013, the UGTT proposed a national dialogue as a means to resolve Tunisia’s domestic economic and political crises. On the economic front, the country was experiencing price hikes, inflation, a budget deficit, public debt, and a downturn in investments—all signs of crisis. The political challenges were reflected in the rise of violence and instability and in the people’s lack of confidence in their inexperienced rulers, many of whom made partisan-based public service appointments. 

Motivated by political nepotism and social solidarity, these appointments undermined the authorities’ credibility and saddled the public state budget with additional wage-related expenditures. In addition, instability continued unabated under the Troika. Terrorism became increasingly frequent in Mount Chaambi and in urban peripheral areas following the assassinations of three political opposition leaders—Mohamed Lotfi Nagdh in October 2012, Chokri Belaid in February 2013, and Mohamed Brahmi in July 2013—reportedly by Salafi jihadists. 

Against this backdrop of crises and tension, the UGTT played a decisive role in brokering Tunisia’s historic compromise. It revived dialogue and masterfully combined forces, for the first time in its history, with the employers’ union, forming an influential counterbalance to the Troika government’s attempts to monopolize power. This alliance was dictated by the economic crisis, which was harming workers and employers alike, and by the will of the UGTT’s leaders to salvage the country from looming disaster. 

By allying themselves with two other associations known for their track records and symbolic weight, the Tunisian Bar Association (which had openly supported the uprising) and Tunisia’s Human Rights League, which became the first such body in the Arab world upon its establishment in 1977, the workers’ and employers unions’ established political balance, forcing the Troika government to negotiate. The Quartet managed to narrow differences and wipe out domestic political polarization between the Troika, on the one hand, and the secular opposition—rallying behind the Nidaa Tounes party, the Popular Front, and other groups within the secular opposition alliance known as the National Salvation Front—on the other hand.


Democratization and Authoritarianism in the Arab World

Beginning in December 2010, a series of uprisings swept the Arab world, toppling four longtime authoritarian leaders and creating an apparent political opening in a region long impervious to the “third wave” of democratization. Despite the initial euphoria, the legacies of authoritarianism—polarized societies, politicized militaries, state-centric economies, and pervasive clientelism—have proven stubborn obstacles to the fashioning of new political and social contracts. Meanwhile, the strong electoral performance of political Islamists and the ensuing backlash in Egypt have rekindled arguments about the compatibility of democracy and political Islam. Even though progress toward democracy has been halting at best, the region’s political environment today bears little resemblance to what it was before the uprising.

Please join us as contributors Daniel Brumberg, Hillel Fradkin, Steven Heydemann, and Tarek Masoud discuss these issues and the future of democracy in the region. The event also will celebrate the book’s publication, and copies will be available for purchase (cash or check only).

The International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy invites you to a discussion celebrating the publication of

Democratization and Authoritarianism in the Arab World

A Journal of Democracy book edited by Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner, published by Johns Hopkins University Press featuring Daniel Brumberg, Larry Diamond, Hillel Fradkin, Steven Heydemann, and Tarek Masoud with introductory remarks by Marc F. Plattner, International Forum for Democratic Studies.

Friday, April 25, 2014. 12:00 p.m.–2:00 p.m. Lunch will be served from 12:00–12:15 p.m.  

RSVP (acceptances only) with name and affiliation by Wednesday, April 23

National Endowment for Democracy

1025 F. Street, N.W., Suite 800, Washington, D.C.

Daniel Brumberg is an associate professor of government and co-director of the M.A. in Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University. In addition to teaching at Georgetown University, Brumberg serves as a special adviser for the United States Institute of Peace’s Muslim World Initiative, where he focuses on democratization and political reform in the Middle East and wider Islamic world.

Hillel Fradkin is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, where he directs its Center on Islam, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World. He is founder and co-editor (with Husain Haqqani, Eric Brown, and Hassan Mneimneh) of the Center’s Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, the leading journal on contemporary Islamism (sometimes known as militant or radical Islam). He is also general editor of Hudson’s monograph series on contemporary Islam and Islamism.

Steven Heydemann is the vice president of Applied Research on Conflict at U.S. Institute of Peace, where he specializes in the comparative politics and the political economy of the Middle East, with a particular focus on Syria. His interests include authoritarian governance, economic development, social policy, political and economic reform, and civil society.

Tarek Masoud is an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he teaches courses on comparative political institutions, democratization, and Middle Eastern politics. He is the author of Counting Islam: Religion, Class, and Elections in Egypt (Cambridge University Press, 2014), and is the co-editor of Problems and Methods in the Study of Politics (Cambridge, 2004) and Order, Conflict, and Violence (Cambridge, 2008). His articles and reviews have appeared in the Journal of Democracy, Middle Eastern Law and Governance, Foreign Policy, and other publications.

Larry Diamond (moderator) is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, where he directs the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL). At CDDRL, he is also one of the principal investigators in the programs on Arab Reform and Democracy and on Liberation Technology. He is also founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy and co-chair of the International Forum for Democratic Studies’ Research Council.

How to fight for the public square

The agora in ancient Athens

The agora in ancient Athens

As citizens gather in city squares from Caracas to Kiev to Cairo, governments are showing symptoms of agoraphobia, which literally means fear of an agora or “place of assembly,” according to Douglas Rutzen and Brittany Grabel of the International Center for Not-for-profit Law.

This phenomenon is occurring in countries across the political spectrum, but in cases of authoritarian agoraphobia, governments have simply destroyed public squares, they write for Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab.

For example, in Bahrain, the government bulldozed Pearl Square to stymie the country’s 2011 reformist movement and prevent citizens from assembling there. In other countries, governments have erected physical barriers to restrict access to civic space. In Egypt, the military recently erected ten-foot iron gates to control access to Tahrir Square, while in Uganda, the police installed barbed wire to keep citizens out of Constitution Square, Kampala’s only public square. On March 20, 2014, the Turkish government blocked Twitter, restricting access to the digital agora.

Supplementing physical and electronic barriers, many governments are erecting legal barriers to civic space. In January 2014, Cambodia issued a blanket ban on all public gatherings. Days later, Viktor Yanukovych’s Ukraine enacted legislation imposing five year prison sentences on protestors if they blocked government buildings, and allowing the authorities to seize the cars of people participating in “Automaidan” protests. Shortly after, the Venezuelan government brought criminal charges, including arson and conspiracy charges to imprison citizens engaged in peaceful assemblies. These are but a few recent examples of the global agoraphobia pandemic.

According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, more than twenty countries have recently considered or enacted legal restrictions on the freedom of peaceful assembly.

Agoraphobia is a global contagion, and no country is immune. To address this pandemic, international institutions, governments, and civil society must embrace a holistic treatment plan.

First, global and regional institutions must enhance norms protecting peaceful assembly. International norms on the freedom of assembly are just beginning to take shape. The U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) recently established a U.N. special rapporteur on the freedom of assembly. He has written three pioneering thematic reports, but his reports are not binding in international law. …..

Second, governments must reform their national laws and practices. International norms have little impact if they are not enshrined at the national level. …….Donor and experts with comparative expertise must be prepared to respond to appeals from countries requesting assistance. In addition, like-minded governments must increase their political support for multilateral initiatives, such as the Community of Democracies Working Group, which plays a critical role in mobilizing diplomatic engagement when restrictive laws are proposed.

Third, the international community must focus on frontlines. In many countries, security personnel receive limited or no training on how to manage protests in a peaceful, democratic manner. Under the auspices of the special rapporteur or another international body, an initiative should be launched to compile and share good practices, complemented by in-person training programs. …….


Uganda: a general challenges a dictator

UgandaEven as US officials made lofty pledges to support African democracy Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni used looted development funds to close off nearly every peaceful means of loosening his grip on power, says analyst Helen Epstein.

But the opposition wasn’t Museveni’s only problem. What worried him even more was that discontent was also growing in his own political party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), she writes in a must-read essay for The New York Review of Books:

The 2011 elections had brought to Parliament a group of enlightened young people like Cerinah Nebanda who belonged to the NRM, but were just as enraged as the opposition was about rampant corruption and the resulting deterioration of health care and other services. They were working on legislation to prevent Uganda’s oil revenues from falling into the hands of corrupt officials, and were trying to rehabilitate Uganda’s woefully neglected health care system by raising the miserably low salaries of Uganda’s doctors. What happened next, according to General David Sejusa [until recently a senior adviser to Museveni and coordinator of Uganda’s two main spy agencies], was utterly chilling.

“There was a movement of elimination,” he told me. “A meeting was held in Statehouse [the president’s official residence] in September 2012 involving key family members.” Museveni himself was there, as well as First Lady Janet Museveni, Museveni’s then-thirty-eight-year-old son Muhoozi Kainerugaba, Museveni’s half-brother Salim Saleh, and various in-laws. Sejusa wasn’t invited to this meeting. By then, he had been put on what is known in Uganda as katebe, a state of powerlessness in which officials retain their titles and salaries but are given no tasks and don’t receive official reports. Most intelligence work was now carried out by a parallel agency directly under the control of the Museveni family. Nevertheless, Sejusa had built up a strong personal network during his many years in power and he soon found out what took place at that September 2012 meeting.

According to Sejusa’s sources, Museveni’s relatives were furious with the president. He had promised to deal decisively with dissent, but he was letting them down, they said, and now Nebanda and other “rebel MPs” were tearing the ruling NRM apart. “Nebanda was part of a fearless emerging force,” Sejusa said. They “were speaking about things that [Museveni’s family felt] shouldn’t be talked about—especially the corruption of the first family and the prime minister. They were also punching holes in the myth that Museveni himself was innocent, and that only those working for him were corrupt.”

Before long, hit squads were organized to stage car crashes made to look like accidents, shootings made to look like robberies, and poisonings made to look like food poisoning, drug overdoses, and other mishaps. In October 2012, shortly after the meeting at the president’s office, Sejusa, who was still Museveni’s senior adviser and spy chief, wrote a prophetic letter that appeared in several Ugandan newspapers warning of “creeping lawlessness,” “sickening robberies of government money,” and “murders.”


Whether democracy can ever take root in a country with such a brutal political culture will depend crucially on the support that the FUF [the recently-formed Freedom and Unity Front] and all those who continue to struggle for justice in Uganda will receive from inside the country and from the US and other foreign powers, some of which have kept Museveni’s phony democracy going for years, Epstein contends:

In 2012, the World Bank and several European donors finally reduced aid to Uganda because of the regime’s corruption, and in February 2014, President Obama issued a statement warning that the enactment by the Ugandan government of a harsh bill criminalizing homosexuality would damage US–Uganda relations. Museveni signed the bill nevertheless, declaring that he would “work with Russia.” Uganda’s recently developed oil fields may soon diminish the need for foreign aid in any case.