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In state-owned publishing industry, censorship reigns, says IPA

Publishing books and other materials in Vietnam is "a complex, opaque, at times irrational, and highly bureaucratic process," says the International Publishers Association (IPA) following a mission to the country.

In its first ever review of publishing conditions in Vietnam, IPA found that the government's complex screening mechanism - which includes having to register all publications with the authorities, allowing them to edit the work, and providing them with the finished product for "verification purposes" - "severely restrict[s] the freedom to publish."

For instance, the directors, chief-editors and vice-directors of all publishing houses must be approved by the government, which provides ample opportunity for pre-publication censorship, says IPA.

They are advised by law to ensure publications do not mention major taboo subjects, which include anti-government propaganda and the "distortion of historical facts," says IPA.

Plus, because books must be submitted to the authorities for approval prior to distribution, there are hundreds of cases of publishing permits being revoked after publishing.

Besides having their materials censored, those found breaching the law are subject to fines or even time in jail. Recently, a successful comic book on new Vietnamese proverbs was banned as content was deemed to be offensive, and its publishers were fined several million Vietnamese Dongs [1 million Dongs is approximately US$48], found IPA.

According to IPA, the state's monopoly over publishing has forced some publishers to go underground. Selling the books they publish is illegal because "the book has no officially accepted publisher, and has not gone through the screening/censorship process, but also because the publisher lacks a business licence," says IPA. Distribution gets done through a country-wide network of families and friends.

IPA's report provides a road map of specific recommendations to the Vietnamese government to move towards greater freedom to publish, which includes "the very important first steps" of "privatising publishing as they did with other related industries," says IPA.

Although Vietnam claims to have made significant progress on human rights, IFEX members have complained of a "a steady stream" of political trials and arrests of dozens of publishers, independent writers, democracy activists, online critics and members of unsanctioned religious groups. More than 400 people are currently imprisoned in Vietnam for the exercise of fundamental rights, says Human Rights Watch.

In a 13-page memo to the EU, which was in Hanoi earlier this month for the first annual human rights dialogue, Human Rights Watch urged EU members to press Vietnam to release all political prisoners and carry out concrete improvements in freedom of expression, assembly, association and religion.

Freedom to Publish in Vietnam: Between Kafka and the Thang Bom Logic
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