Project Exile: Vietnam journalist went to France after six years in prison

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]This article is part of Index on Censorship partner Global Journalist’s Project Exile series, which has published interviews with exiled journalists from around the world.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”104715″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]Dang Xuan Dieu has paid a heavy price for resisting the Vietnamese government. 

A community activist, blogger and frequent contributor to the Catholic news outlet Vietnam Redemptorist News, a site that often reports on human rights violations, Dieu was arrested in July 2011 and charged with attempting to overthrow the Southeast Asian nation’s Communist government. He was held without trial until January 2013, when he and 13 other writers and human rights activists were convicted after a two-day trial in the central city of Vinh.

Dieu was sentenced to 13 years in prison and five years of house arrest under Article 79 of the country’s penal code, which criminalises activities aimed at overthrowing the government. He was also accused of being a member being of Viet Tan, an exile-run political party banned in the country. 

Such trials aren’t unusual in Vietnam. The Communist Party maintains near-total control over Vietnam’s judiciary, media and civil society. Internet in the country is heavily censored, and nearly 100 political prisoners are behind bars, according to Amnesty International. 

Expressing dissent in Vietnamese prisons is even harder. The country’s Communist government often seeks to pressure inmates into confessing to alleged crimes in prison, and if they refuse, they can be beaten or tortured.

Yet resist is what Dieu did. He refused to confess, refused to wear a prison uniform and periodically went on hunger strikes to protest his detention and the treatment of prisoners.

“In Vietnam, a lot of people are arrested where they are harassed and tortured, which forces many people to confess their crimes,” says Dieu, 39, in an interview with Global Journalist. “I never accepted the charges and chose to not admit to any guilt. Because of this, I was unable to see my lawyer or my family.”

In his six years in prison, Dieu endured extensive torture and harassment. He was severely beaten for refusing to wear the prison uniform, and was held in solitary confinement for extensive periods in what he described as a “tiny room with no room to breathe.” According to Amnesty International, he was also shackled in a cell with another prisoner who beat him, forced to drink unclean water, denied access to water for bathing and was forced to live in unsanitary conditions without a toilet.

In early January 2017, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry travelled to Vietnam, Dieu was granted early release on the condition that he immediately leave the country. Now living in France, Dieu is a student and continues to blog about Vietnam. Through a translator, he spoke with Global Journalist’s Shirley Tay about the abuse he faced in prison and the country’s media climate. Below, an edited version of their interview: 

Global Journalist: How did you get into journalism?

Dang Xuan Dieu: I was a student and contributor to the Vietnam Redemptorist News, and I would write about social justice issues. I created my own blog, Tâm và Tầm [Mind and Games] and also worked with a news website Dang Luon.

[Vietnam] restricts independent media and control all media outlets to maintain power. All media is monitored by the Communist Party of Vietnam, so state bodies end up creating their own media or newspapers. There are probably 600 media outlets in Vietnam at the moment, but all are currently controlled by the government. When I was active in 2011, writing blogs and independent news articles was actually quite dangerous.

GJ: What were some of the work that got you into trouble?

Dieu: While I am Catholic, I also work on other forms of activism. The Vietnamese government often tries to control the information that people are able to have. So I created a small, independent organisation to promote education on things like safe sex, pregnancy, and other issues that youth face. Because it was an independent group, we were often targeted. We were asked to go to the police station several times when we were organising in various parishes. 

During this time, I started connecting with civil rights activists from overseas who taught me how to manage and organise independent civil society organisations. After that, I travelled overseas to attend some of these classes. On the way back to Vietnam, I was charged for attending a class on leadership training and nonviolent struggle. 

GJ: Can you tell me about your time in prison?

Dieu: In prisons, they have their own systems to punish prisoners. There are areas that allow for people to move freely and do normal, day-to-day activities, but there are also areas within the normal prison that are like a prison within a prison within a prison. So I was in what you would call a third-degree prison area, where people are primarily shackled and kept in solitary confinement. 

The problems started when I did not confess to any crimes and when I refused to wear the prison uniform because I believed I wasn’t guilty. I was placed in a cell with someone who was charged for murder and who tried to [beat me] to force me to wear the prison uniform and confess to crimes. He may have been doing this on orders from various prison officials.

After that person was transferred, I started advocating for the rights of prisoners, such as writing petitions to officers regarding mistreatment. As a Catholic, I wasn’t allowed to practice my faith or read the Bible. There were several other injustices which led me to begin a hunger strike. 

As punishment, they placed me in solitary confinement. The majority of my six years in prison was in solitary confinement or in cells with very dangerous people as cellmates. During my time in prison, they saw me as a resister and so they didn’t allow me to see my family at any time. 

What was worse was that they actually told my family that I refused to see them, rather than that I wasn’t allowed to see them. Because of this, I held an extended hunger strike where I ate only one meal a day for nearly a year, and this led to a transfer of prison locations.

GJ: How did you manage to get out of prison?

Dieu: There was another prison inmate who lived close to my cell, where I had been tortured and mistreated. When he was released, he actually told the wider community about what was going on in prison. At that time, the prison wasn’t able to block information going in and out of the prison.

So the community started organising campaigns calling for my release, and there were diplomats from the European Union, France, the U.S., Australia and Sweden who visited me. At that time, the EU diplomat asked if I wanted to be exiled to a country in Europe. I refused because I wanted to advocate for the release of other people, not my own release. 

After the diplomat’s visit, they took me to a different cell and then never allowed me to leave that area for about six months. The situation started becoming dangerous to my life and luckily, another inmate who was not a political prisoner, but just a regular prisoner, was released and contacted my family to inform them of my prison conditions. 

So the EU and a French diplomat visited me again, this was during the time of French President [François] Hollande’s visit to Vietnam in September 2016. My family was able to pass me a letter asking me to go into exile. Upon receiving that letter, I agreed. After that, it took another three months for them to arrange it.

GJ: At that point, were you ready to go in to exile?

It was only the letter from my mother which pushed me to choose to be exiled. It was because my mother is fairly old now, and she wanted to see me released before she died. I was determined, I was willing to die in prison rather than be exiled. The Vietnamese government tries to push activists outside of Vietnam, because they see that it’s not a win for activism. And obviously, for humanitarian reasons, a lot of the community advocates for the release of these prisoners. 

GJ: Do you have plans to return?

Dieu: I want to return to Vietnam, but it depends on there being changes through international pressure. If I were to return now, I would definitely be arrested. I will just have to wait.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_video link=”″][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship partner Global Journalist is a website that features global press freedom and international news stories as well as a weekly radio program that airs on KBIA, mid-Missouri’s NPR affiliate, and partner stations in six other states. The website and radio show are produced jointly by professional staff and student journalists at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, the oldest school of journalism in the United States. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Don’t lose your voice. Stay informed.” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_separator color=”black”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship is a nonprofit that campaigns for and defends free expression worldwide. We publish work by censored writers and artists, promote debate, and monitor threats to free speech. We believe that everyone should be free to express themselves without fear of harm or persecution – no matter what their views.

Join our mailing list (or follow us on Twitter or Facebook). We’ll send you our weekly newsletter, our monthly events update and periodic updates about our activities defending free speech. We won’t share, sell or transfer your personal information to anyone outside Index.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″]

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Facebook undermines media freedom by removing Vietnam War photo

facebook-aftenpostenIndex on Censorship, a global organisation that campaigns for free expression, fully supports the action of Norway’s Aftenposten newspaper in refusing a request from Facebook to remove an iconic photo of the Vietnam War that features a naked child running from a napalm attack.

The social media platform later reversed its decision.

Aftenposten, Norway’s largest newspaper by circulation, said in a front-page editorial on 9 September that Facebook emailed the newspaper to demand the removal of a documentary photograph from the Vietnam War made by Nick Ut of The Associated Press. “Less than 24 hours after the email was sent, and before I had time to give my response, you intervened yourselves and deleted the article as well as the image from Aftenposten’s Facebook page,” Aftenposten’s editor in chief said in the editorial, written as a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Index is shocked and disturbed by the behaviour of Facebook in this matter. We understand that Facebook, as a private company, has the right to impose terms of service as it sees fit and this includes policies with which we may not agree – such as its policies on nudity. However, its actions in this case demonstrate the crucial role that context plays in assessing what content should be removed. As Aftenposten editor Espen Egil Hansen writes: Facebook rules “don’t distinguish between child pornography and famous war photos”.

Furthermore, Facebook’s decision undermines media freedom by removing from an independent media outlet’s own page an image and article that that organisation has made the considered decision to publish. This calls into question the entire model of Facebook as a social media platform. If Index, for example, is not able to freely publish articles on our own Facebook page that we feel to be important, what purpose is there for us to use Facebook at all? Facebook ceases in this scenario to be a champion, or even a conduit, of free speech.

Finally, Facebook should be a platform for debate. We understand from Aftenposten that when Norwegian author Tom Egeland challenged a decision by Facebook to remove the picture of Phan Thi Kim Phuc from a post he made, he was excluded from Facebook. This, again, flies in the face of the notion that Facebook is a platform for open debate.

Open debate, including the viewing of images and stories that some people may find offensive, is vital for democracy. Platforms such as Facebook can play an essential role in ensuring this. We urge Facebook not just to overturn this decision but to renew its commitment to providing a platform that allows for public debate. This means supporting the free sharing of legal information no matter how offensive it may appear to others.

Swamp of the Assassins: Vietnamology

By Thomas A. Bass

Today Index on Censorship continues publishing Swamp of the Assassins by American academic and journalist Thomas Bass, who takes a detailed look at the Kafkaesque experience of publishing his biography of Pham Xuan An in Vietnam.

The first installment was published on Feb 2 and can be read here.

Censors dictate even the smallest details

About Swamp of the Assassins

Thomas Bass spent five years monitoring the publication of a Vietnamese translation of his book The Spy Who Loved Us. Swamp of the Assassins is the record of Bass’ interactions and interviews with editors, publishers, censors and silenced and exiled writers. Begun after a 2005 article in The New Yorker, Bass’ biography of Pham Xuan An provided an unflinching look at a key figure in Vietnam’s pantheon of communist heroes. Throughout the process of publication, successive editors strove to align Bass’ account of An’s life with the official narrative, requiring numerous cuts and changes to the language. Related: Vietnam’s concerted effort to keep control of its past

About Thomas Bass

Thomas Alden Bass is an American writer and professor in literature and history. Currently he is a professor of English at University at Albany, State University of New York.

About Pham Xuan An

Pham Xuan An was a South Vietnamese journalist, whose remarkable effectiveness and long-lived career as a spy for the North Vietnamese communists—from the 1940s until his death in 2006—made him one of the greatest spies of the 20th century.


2 Feb: On being censored in Vietnam | 3 Feb: Fighting hand-to-hand in the hedgerows of literature | 4 Feb: Hostage trade | 5 Feb: Not worth being killed for | 6 Feb: Literary control mechanisms | 9 Feb: Vietnamology | 10 Feb: Perfect spy? | 11 Feb: The habits of war | 12 Feb: Wandering souls | 13 Feb: Eyes in the back of his head | 16 Feb: The black cloud | 17 Feb: The struggle | 18 Feb: Cyberspace country

The next morning, taking a taxi to the Cau Giay district on the west side of town, I pass several of the lakes that dot downtown Hanoi to arrive at a tree-line boulevard where Nha Nam, my publisher, fills an old building with louvered windows that open onto iron-fronted balconies. Already by ten in the morning a gray blanket of heat and humidity has draped itself over the city. Nha Nam’s ground-floor bookshop is filled with translations of Proust, Kundera, and Nabokov, and I am pleased to find a stack of my own books displayed next to Lolita. I introduce myself to the receptionist and am led upstairs to meet Nguyen Nhat Anh, chairman of the company, and Vu Hoang Giang, his vice-director and partner. I had actually met Giang the night before. Without my knowing that he would be there, he had attended a lecture I gave at the Hanoi Cinematheque and introduced himself afterwards. As the chairman of Nha Nam presents me with a bouquet of purple lotus blossoms, I fear that my remarks the previous evening may have been too candid.

Nguyen Nhat Anh, a slender man in a black tee shirt, jeans, and sandals, looks more like a coffee shop habitué than the editor of a major publishing company. Known for his literary nose, he works at a desk covered with books and manuscripts piled ten deep. His partner, Giang, wearing an open-necked polo shirt, is a tall, handsome fellow with a ready smile and a small tattoo decorating his right wrist. I imagine they have divided the corporate turf between them, with Anh responsible for scholarship and Giang for sales. Later I learn that a lot of the manuscripts piled on Anh’s desk are actually publishing contracts, while Giang has his own literary interests, and, in fact, he was the person who finally arranged to got my book published.

Thu Yen, the editor with whom I have been sparring for the last few years, has not been invited to this meeting. She remains at her desk in the contracts department, while another translator has been hired for the occasion—a young Vietnamese woman, a former office manager at an American law firm. As the scholarly Anh and smiling Giang discuss the nuances of Vietnamese publishing, the young woman’s translations get shorter and shorter, until finally she seems on the verge of giving up completely. Fortunately, I have brought my own translator, and we will spend several hours later that afternoon reconstructing the conversation.

I take a seat on the couch in Anh’s office. Outside the louvered windows, the cicadas in the trees are making a fearsome racket. Giang has already warned me an in email about the “tight and rather heavy-handed censorship system of state-owned publishers in Vietnam. This you may not fully imagine.” I am offered a cup of green tea and then we launch into a discussion of censorship, how it is handled generally in Vietnam and particularly in my case.

Anh takes the lead, giving lengthy, formal answers to my questions, until Giang takes over when the boss heads to the espresso machine next to his desk and brews himself a cup of coffee. I am tempted to ask for one myself but decide to be polite and stick with tea. Anh describes how the censors dictate even the smallest details. He gives as an example the fact that political figures must have honorifics. One is not allowed to refer to the founder of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam as Ho Chi Minh. He has to be Bac Ho—Uncle Ho—which inscribes him simultaneously into Vietnamese family structure and history.

“Censorship is a very tough question,” says Anh. “We don’t really have a system or set of rules for how it’s handled. All we know is that lots of publishers didn’t dare to publish your book.”

The jalousie doors and windows in Anh’s office open onto a porch overlooking the street, but they remain closed against the heat. Other than his desk, groaning under its layer of books, and a coffee table, piled with yet more books, the room holds nothing more than the couch on which I am sitting and bare green walls.

“Because another book had been published on the same subject, we thought this improved our chances,” he says. “We were sure we could get your book in print.”

I ask Anh why he chose a northerner to translate my book, someone who missed the nuances and even the jokes told by its southern hero.

“The differences are like music,” he says. “Singers sing the same songs but give them different interpretations. When we translated Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, we tried to keep it honest to the southern dialect. But in your case, we thought we were dealing with a political book, a work of non-fiction. The people who read these books are northerners, and you have to make the text understandable for them.”

I ask Anh and Giang to talk in more detail about censoring my book. They describe the by now well-known process, which begins with the translation, commissioned from someone who knows how the game is played. Then the book goes to the editor, who removes all the “sensitive” material.

“How does he know what to remove?”

Nha Nam Vice Director Vu Hoang Giang and Chairman Nguyen Nhat An (Photo: Thomas Bass)

Nha Nam Vice Director Vu Hoang Giang and Chairman Nguyen Nhat Anh (Photo: Thomas Bass)

“That’s his job,” says Anh. “Long was a specialist in control mechanisms, what they call cybernetics, and similar principles apply in literature. Censorship in book publishing has some known, but also lots of unknown, control mechanisms. We rely on the editor’s experience in making cuts to the manuscript. He knows what has a high probability of failing to pass the censors.”

“The process is dangerous, dangerous to the author, but also dangerous to the publisher,” says Anh. By this point in the conversation, he has kicked off his sandals and is cooling his bare feet on the tile floor. Overhead, a fan swirls tepid air around the room. Temperatures in Hanoi this spring are spiking over a hundred.

Anh tells me the story of a book of poems the company published in 2006 by an author named Tran Dan. Dan’s work has been banned in Vietnam since the 1950s, when he was involved in the nhan van giai pham affair. This was Vietnam’s version of Mao’s cultural revolution, a purging of writers, artists, and musicians who were blacklisted, imprisoned, and banned for fifty years. One of these artists was Van Cao, who, in 1945, had composed Vietnam’s national anthem. From 1957 until 1986, Vietnamese found themselves in the peculiar position of being allowed to play but not sing Van Cao’s anthem. Only when the words were changed was the song once again performed. Van Cao himself had long ago stopped composing, thereby joining the ranks of Vietnamese artists—hundreds of them, from the 1950s to the present—who have been driven into silence or exile.

With Mao long dead and his cultural revolution discredited, Nha Nam thought it was safe to bring the poet Tran Dan back into print. They had obtained a publishing license from a state-owned company in Danang and printed some of his poems when all hell broke loose. “The police came to the book fair and seized all our books,” says Anh. “Then they raided our offices and destroyed more books. This was terrifying for us. We thought we were going to be closed down and put out of business.”

“What went wrong?” I ask.

Anh lowers his voice and mentions the name of an agency named A25.

“Now it’s A87,” Giang says, correcting him.

Governmental departments that begin with the letter “A,” which stands for “an ninh,” meaning “security,” are legion, and A25—now known as A87—is the one that deals with publishers.

“In any case, it’s Cultural Security, cuc an ninh van hoa,” says Anh.

“What’s their address?” I ask.

“They don’t have an address,” he says, implying they are everywhere. The two men discuss among themselves in terse sentences what went wrong. None of their interchange is translated.

“There is no single organization in charge of censorship,” says Anh. “There are a lot of people involved.” Again, he mentions the Ministry of Public Security.

Giang mentions the Ministry of Information and Communication. “This is the office in charge of publishing,” he says.

Anh adds to this list the national police and other organizations. “It’s like a cloud,” he says. “They are everywhere.”

“Usually they don’t arrest editors,” he says. “This can happen to writers, but editors generally know in advance when they’re going to run into trouble.”

I ask them to speak in more detail about the censorship involved in publishing my book. This is when I hear for the first time about Nguyen The Vinh. Vinh is the man who produced the final list of cuts to my book and secured its publishing license. From their description of him, I get the idea that Vinh is a heavy-weight in the publishing world. The former director of various companies, he now works as an editor at Hong Duc, the state-owned publisher attached to the Ministry of Information and Communication. This company not only gave my book its publishing license, it also put its logo on the title page. Actually, the book has two logos on the title page: Nha Nam’s trudging water buffalo, with a book-reading buffalo boy (or girl) on its back, and Hong Duc’s white H inscribed inside a black D.

I learn another interesting fact about Vinh. He was the editor who secured the publishing license for Professor Berman’s Perfect Spy. The Vietnamese translation of this book was supposed to grease the skids for mine, and who better to perform this feat than the man who had already done it before.

As Anh busies himself making his cup of espresso, Giang takes over the narrative. “Your book was rejected by five or six publishers,” he says. “Other publishers who looked at it wanted to interfere a lot, changing the content. They kept asking to cut more and more. We resisted these changes, until finally Nguyen The Vinh agreed to publish it.”

“And what changes did he demand?” I ask.

Anh is pacing behind his desk. A frown darkens Giang’s face. “When you talk to him, you shouldn’t be too hard in your questions,” he says. “It could affect Vinh and the chances for your book to remain on sale.”

“Who asked Vinh to get involved?” I ask.

“Giang approached him,” says Anh. I can see that these men are nervous about talking to me in such detail. By now, both of them are sitting with their arms crossed over their chests.

“The publishers at Hong Duc wanted to write a forward to your book,” says Anh. “We rejected this idea.”

I can imagine how Hong Duc’s introduction would have reworked the standard tropes about Pham Xuan An as a “perfect” spy, an impeccable Communist cadre, who, nonetheless, garnered fulsome praise from his Western admirers. I am grateful to my editors for saving me this embarrassment.

“It was Vinh who took personal responsibility for publishing your book,” says Anh.

“You mean it can still be censored?”

Your book could be seized tomorrow,” he says. “No one knows where the trouble could come from. We have yet to see any negative signs, but someone can always find ‘sensitive’ items in a book.”

“What subjects would you like me to avoid talking about while I am in Vietnam?” I ask.

“Please remember that Vinh has his reputation and career on the line,” says Anh.

By now everyone knows my opinion of censorship—the cowardly business by which the powerful lie to the weak in order to protect their self-interest. I have no need to repeat myself.

“You shouldn’t be too direct with Vinh,” says Anh. “He was acting on directions from the publisher.”

“You should also know that your book is a living thing,” says Giang. “It can be published again, with material that was cut in the first edition added back in later editions.”

I assure Anh and Giang that I will do my best not to offend anyone. They know that an uncensored Vietnamese version of my book will be released later on the web.

“Right now we have no standards in Vietnam,” says Giang. “We don’t know our rights, and we don’t know from what direction the censorship is coming. But our system is changing. We hope you understand that we can improve. We can do better. We are learning how to function in the world of international publishing.”

“If your book is republished, we want to put back in the details that were cut,” he says. “You have a positive perception of Vietnam. People know this. So we’re asking for you to be patient. Give us some time to work things out. People appreciate you as an expert on Vietnam, a critic, sometimes a tough critic, but a fair one. Vietnamology—maybe that’s the right word for what you do.”

“How many ‘hard’ books do you publish each year?” I ask.

“In our career we are always working with difficult books,” says Anh. “This comes with the territory. But your book was a special case. It was the most difficult. I wanted to give up. I thought it was hopeless. I’m hot headed, and this was just too hard. I threw up my hands. ‘This book is never going to be published!’ I said. But my colleagues are more patient than I am. ‘Wait,’ they told me. ‘There is still a chance.’ It was thanks to Giang and Thu Yen that your book saw the light of day. They were patient. They persisted.”

“I felt like a hostage between two warring armies,” says Anh. “I was being fired on from two directions. The author was resisting cuts. The censors were demanding cuts. There are authors who know how this system works, Milan Kundera for example. He has lived under censorship. When we published his books, he understood our problems and agreed to let us do what we had to do. It would have been helpful if you had been more reassuring.”

“On behalf of the publisher, we want to tell you that we’re happy your book has been published,” says Giang. I suspect he’s feeling sorry about my having been compared unfavorably to Milan Kundera. Actually, I’m amused that a refugee from communist Czechoslovakia would prove tractable to being censored in communist Vietnam.

“This is not the first time that Vietnam and the United States have engaged in difficult negotiations,” I say. Anh and Giang appreciate the joke. “I’m glad we arrived at a happy conclusion.” We shake hands, and then I am asked to sit at Anh’s desk to sign copies of my book for members of Nha Nam’s staff. Apparently, everyone in the company wants a copy—perhaps before the book disappears from the shelves. All throughout lunch hour people keep drifting into Anh’s office with yet more copies for me to sign.

Part 7: Perfect spy?

This sixth installment of the serialisation of Swamp of the Assassins by Thomas A. Bass was posted on February 9, 2015 at