“In the eyes of the police, we are not considered human anymore,” journalist Pham Doan Trang, representative of the unregistered Liberal Publishing House (LPH), shared about the repression of the Vietnamese government.
The fact that the LPH was awarded the Prix Voltaire Award 2020 by the International Publishers Association (IPA) in early June reminded a silent but powerful flow in Vietnam: independent publishers.
“For LPH, this award is a reward for the efforts and the courage of everyone since its establishment. During that time, the members had not had a minute of peace but living constantly in a state of stress. Everyone suffers a lot,” Doan Trang said in a telephone exchange with BBC News Vietnamese.
“We will have to continue the mission of raising the people’s intellectual level, fighting for the freedom of publishing and the right to read of Vietnamese people.”
Vietnam currently has many private companies operating in the field of book publishing, but the industry is still under strict state control. Any private company or individual wishing to publish a book must link to a state publisher.
The journey for a book to reach the reader thus has to go through many stages of censorship. First of all, it’s the self-censorship of the author, the organization of the implementation. Next, the company or the author itself will submit the manuscript to the state publisher for a license.
In turn, this publisher will submit to the Publication Department for permission and only if the agency agrees, the publication of the book will be considered legal. Not to mention that after publication, the release of a book to the market also requires a strict set of conditions.
Any act of publishing books for public release without going through the above process is considered a violation of the law.
However, there are still many people who refuse to step into that censorship. They have independently stood out, self-organized publishing, run their own activities. There was the Giay Vun Publishing House, and now there is the LPH.
“The mission of the LPH is to educate the people, tell the truth to Vietnamese people, encourage how more writers, more readers, more publishers will be born. That is the long-term mission,” said Pham Doan Trang.
Newly born, but until now LPH has released about 20 titles, including books such as Prisoner Handbook, Popular Politics, Senh field, Learning Public Policies through Special Zones Stories …
“We publish books without censorship,” Trang said. “In fact, there are many books that are not under censorship and no license for printing in Vietnam. The story of the ghost of resentment, the perpetual calendar … also does not apply for a permit, does not go to any publisher but the government does not care. They care only political, social, legal books, and impose strict censorship.”
Ms Trang said that LPH chose to implement Vietnamese books, written by Vietnamese, on politics, society, law, and on all current issues of Vietnam.
“In general, it is a non-fiction book written by the Vietnamese. We do not give preference to translated books.”
According to Ms. Trang, these are the books that “in the current situation of Vietnam, there is no chance to be published through the state system. Never can pass through the censorship net, cannot reach the Publication Department for verification.”
“Actually, it is not difficult to find and appraise manuscripts in Vietnam. Such manuscripts are many. Even last year, LPH reprinted the book Night at Midday by Vu Thu Hien which has a big public interest,” shared journalist Pham Doan Trang.
She further explained:
“That is, in Vietnam, the demand for reading is there, especially the demand for non-fiction books is very large. Books telling the truth are very much sought after. Opinions suggest that reading culture in Vietnam low, that’s what we think and say that that’s because the publishers don’t know how to get the books in the hands of the readers because the writers and the publishers aren’t proactive so the readers don’t care, I see books that tell the truth, but the author dares to write, the publisher dare to print, so many people read.”
But in order to continue the publishing work and towards the long-term goal of educating the people, “in the short term, we think how we can live, that is, not be killed, with the sweeping and oppressive way of police, I think it’s a serious story. I don’t really know how long the publisher’ staff can survive.”
Journalist Pham Doan Trang said that the Prix Voltaire was on the one hand a great encouragement to her group, but on the other hand, it would make the “police hatred even higher“.
They want to put us to death
“LPH was established in February 2019, since then it’s been a year and four months, we have not had a minute of peace at all,” journalist Pham Doan Trang said.
According to her, there are many repressions that the government does to members of the LPH.
“The easiest way is to block all accounts opened by the Free Publishers. They are still waiting for the account owners to appear. They block the source of the readers’ money,” Trang said.
“Heavier then they set a trap to catch the delivery person. Once they caught it, they beat them savagely. Beat them to death. Usually, they hit the face of the nose on the spot, then put them in the car continue fighting, going to next station to assault.”
“It is an act of abduction. That is, first stealing the phone, controlling, and beating the face before bringing it to the car. In recent cases, our staff were arrested, beaten and lucky to escape, not released by the police,” she said and explained:
“It is clear that there is no such thing as law. We often talk about having laws, having summons, in fact there is nothing here. It’s just ambushing, beating, kidnapping and taking us to police stations where they continue beating.
“That is how they behave like animals. In the eyes of the police, we are not human, so don’t talk about civil rights here, don’t talk about laws, summoning letters, and dialogues with them,” she denounced.
“This is a beating, torture, a bow, and a serious injury. In one case, I was beaten, and I vomited blood three days later. There is also another measure of intimidation.” Everyone at LPH will leave home, no one will stay at home during the New Year, holidays, and birthdays of relatives. They even come to the house to threaten and ask relatives to ask where we are. They generally use all sorts of brutal means to suppress.”
The government’s crackdown on members and collaborators of the LPH was recently voiced by Amnesty International in a letter to Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc on May 14.
Calling for the release and suppression of members of the LPH, Amnesty International’s letter reads: “The Vietnamese Constitution and international human rights law guarantee the right to freedom of expression, including the right to continue to receive and communicate information and ideas. This includes accessing and reading the information contained in books such as those published by the LPH.”
In a message published in mid-June 2020, Human Rights Watch (HRW) also stated that the Vietnamese government increased its crackdown on independent journalists, including authors whose books were published by LPH like Pham Thanh.
“Vietnam’s allies and trading partners should speak out with Hanoi about these new cases and ask the government to release these political prisoners,” said John Sifton, Asia Regional Human Rights Advocacy Director of HRW.
Ms. Pham Doan Trang describes the police’s fighting style:
“Their fighting method is very dangerous. They use their fingers to hook in the ribs, leave it there, let the victim take three or four days to vomit blood due to stomach or organ injuries. They arrest the whole family. It’s the kind of threat of ‘if you want to live, call your relative back here’. It’s the kind of putting us to death, it’s not the kind of thing we can hope to talk to each other.”
“We do not understand why it is possible for them to treat such cruelty with citizens. Assuming we make evil documents the way they say, there is no chance of having a conversation with each other. The fact is that there is no chance at all, in their minds, there is only the thought of destroying and killing.”
Despite such prosecution, LPH continues to operate. Journalist Pham Doan Trang explained:
“We exist to this day, operating until today thanks to the support and protection of readers. Why do they support and protect? In my opinion, they first see a pure purpose. They see our commitment and sacrifice so they support.”
From the reality of her activities, journalist Pham Doan Trang draws lessons for herself and for democracy activists in general:
“With the democrats, the civil society activists, if they take the common, take the purpose of fighting for democracy, for the society to be the first, then they will be supported by the people. It is a hope to win the fight, but if you still keep the ego, still put the safety, convenience on top, and keep afraid of sacrifices, afraid of hardship, so you can never reach your goals.”
Regarding the story of LPH, Ms. Trang reiterated that “the demand for reading is currently very high so I never worry about the lack of manuscripts, the lack of writers, the lack of readers.”
“I’m just worried whether I can live to do that or not because, with this repression, they probably want to kill people like us,” she said.