Catholic World News News Feature

Dead men talking: the Vietnamese government's media campaign against Catholics September 18, 2008

In the latest clash between Vietnamese Catholic protestors and state officials, Church officials have pointed to gross distortions carried by the government media in their coverage of demonstrations outside a Redemptorist monastery in Hanoi.

After Bishop Anthony Vu Huy Chuong of the Hung Hoa diocese pointed out cases in which people masquerading as priests and lay Catholics have been employed in state media to discredit the Church, other dioceses launched counter-attacks on the dishonesty of the state-controlled media. A Catholic prosecutor in Phat Diem diocese has accused the People’s Police newspaper of distorting his opinion. “I confirmed that I never said anything relating to Thai Ha, I never asked for the punishment [against the protestors], I did not mention God in my answers,” said Judge Vu Kim My of Kim Son, who protested immediately after his name was invoked in a report carried by the paper on September 15. He said that the reporter asked him only two questions relating to general law. “The rest of the report was added by themselves”, said Judge Vu.

The case of Judge Vu is a further evidence of what Msgr. Vu Huy Chuong denounced on September 8: a campaign of falsehood and disinformation by the state media.

In an article in New Hanoi newspaper dated August 20, Nguyen Quoc Cuong of Dai On parish in Chuong My accused Thai Ha protestors of “not following the Catholic Catechism.” The Hanoi archdiocese quickly found out that the man existed only in the imagination of the reporters. “He simply does not exist in our parish,” said a parish council member.

Even more miracously, the same paper made a dead person speak out against his brothers and sisters in faith. Nguyen Duc Thang was introduced as a parishioner of Thach Bich, and a Church dissident who strongly opposed the protests at Thai Ha. This time the archdiocese discovered that the individual is deceased. “Yes, he was a Catholic in my parish”, said Father Nguyen Khac Que, the vicar of Thach Bich. But, “he already died a few years ago. I have no idea how a dead person could answer an interview.”

In an on-the-spot report in front of the Thai Ha monastery, cameramen from Hanoi Television interviewed an elderly man on September 4, introducing him as an active Catholic. But when the Catholic demonstrators gathered at the site asked the man for his Christian name, he could not answer; he admitted that he was a beggar. “They [the television cameramen] had given me some money to act and speak as instructed,” he disclosed.

On The Voice of Vietnam, the state’s official radio network, Father Nguyen Van Khanh, vicar of Gia Nghia in the Lam Dong province, was reported to oppose protests in Thai Ha, and to praise the land policy of the government. However when contacted by Church authorities of the Dalat diocese, the priest insisted that no one had interviewed him. Furthermore, he said flatly that his parish’s land “was confiscated without any compensation.” The parish was forced to move deep inside the mountainous area of Dak Nut. After all petitions had fallen upon deaf ears, “we had to buy a new piece of land to build a new church. We strongly disagree with the government on the way it handles land disputes,” Father Nguyen added.

In a communiqué read at every Sunday Mass, Father Anthony Pham Anh Dung, the vice chancellor of the Archdiocese of Hanoi, warned priests and faithful of the archdiocese against tricks being played by the state media “in order to make up fake scenarios to distort and deceit public opinion.”

In many Vietnamese dioceses, the faithful have been gathering regularly around display cases where the church bulletins are posted, to see reports from media sources outside Vietnam about the events taking place in Hanoi. State officials have warned citizens not to read articles from Catholic World News, AsiaNews, and other independent agencies. Nevertheless the stories are in high demand in Vietnam; they are being translated quickly and posted in church bulletins.

State officials have also exerted pressure on Catholic activists by taking steps to make their children uncomfortable in school.

A high-school principal in Hanoi recently told the demonstrators at Thai Ha that he had been ordered by the the People’s Committee of Thanh Oai district to travel more than 30 km a day from his school to Thai Ha to check where his students attended prayer meetings. The principal, Nguyen Tien Toan, reported that teachers were encouraged to threaten the children of Catholic activists with bad grades and even possible expulsion from school.

Most teachers feel reluctant to take such actions their students. But some seem to see it as opportunity to act on their own anti-Catholicism ideology. Two year Catholic students from Thach Bich told their parents they had been forced by their teachers to stand in front of their classmates to be mocked. The “humiliation session” had dragged on until the 11-year old children promised not to go to the church again.

Teachers in Bich Hoa high school, out of the fear of losing their promotion and pay rise, asked all Catholic students to pledge in writing not to join their parents in the demonstrations at Thai Ha. In addition, non-Catholic students were ordered to report the presence of their Catholic classmates at the site.

Catholic students from Hanoi university reported facing expulsion for joining the protestors. “We have been repeatedly warned not to go to Thai Ha”, said an architect student, who has requested anonymity for his own safety. “We just come here to pray. We do nothing wrong. We have no weapons and no political ambition. Why they fear us?” he asked.