01/26/2005, 00.00
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Websites targeted, reporter prosecuted in media purge

Hanoi (AsiaNews/Agencies) -  Recent action against two news websites as well as a newspaper reporter shows Vietnam's government is again clamping down on its domestic media, critics say.

The editor of one news site was sacked, another site has been shut down since early this month, and a reporter is being prosecuted for using "state secrets" in her articles.

The Vietnamese government has said little about the reasons for the actions. But observers say both websites were disciplined after carrying articles about the government's purchase of 78 luxury vehicles when it hosted the Asia-Europe Meeting last October.

Reporters Sans Frontieres, the Paris-based international press watchdog, calls the moves an "assault on press freedoms".

"The Vietnamese authorities view the media as propaganda vehicles," it said. "They particularly fear websites, even official ones, since they are a sounding board for popular discontent."

The government has said one of the websites, tintucvietnam.com, was fined and shut down because it had failed to gain an operating licence. But other media outlets run by the state, as all are in Vietnam, say about 80 per cent of the country's websites lack licences, yet are still permitted to operate.

Politburo member Nguyen Khoa Diem, head of the party's powerful Ideology and Culture Commission, was quoted in state newspapers in December as saying Vietnam must "strengthen the management" of the press. "Many newspapers are being influenced by commercialisation and their activities are not in line with proper principles and objectives," he said in Tuoi Tre, the daily newspaper whose reporter is facing legal action.

But Tuoi Tre and other newspapers have been vocal in their defence of the journalist, Lan Anh, who is accused of using secret health ministry notes in a series of articles exposing excessive pricing in the pharmaceuticals market.

Even the newspaper run by the People's Supreme Court, Cong Ly (Justice), carried an article last week saying Anh had not broken any laws.

Less has been said publicly about the popular news websites, however.

Observers say Vietnam, like China, is grappling with the dilemma of expanding internet use for the sake of development while maintaining strict control over any content deemed subversive.

Carl Thayer, an expert on Vietnamese affairs at the Australian Defence Force Academy, said strict controls "will handicap Vietnam's development effort, especially in light of plans to further the development of electronic newspapers and internet services as a means of connecting Vietnam to the outside world". (SC)

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