Accessibility links

Breaking News

The Inside Story - Barbie, Bloggers, and Bans | Episode 102 TRANSCRIPT

The Inside Story - Barbie, Bloggers, and Bans | Episode 102 THUMBNAIL horizontal


The Inside Story: A Free Press Matters

Barbie, Bloggers, and Bans

Episode 102 – July 27, 2023

Show Open:

This week on the inside story: “Barbie, Bloggers, and Bans.”

A new movie is an international hit... so why is Vietnam outlawing the film?

Local newsroom closures silence critical reports... and leave audiences in the dark.

Repressive regimes ratchet-up the pressure on dissent from abroad,

and how those living in exile are helping others find their voices.

Now... the inside story: Barbie, Bloggers, and Bans

The Inside Story: A Free Press Matters:

JESSICA JERREAT, VOA's Press Freedom Editor:

Hi, I'm Jessica Jerreat, VOA's Press Freedom Editor.

On the Inside Story: A Free Press Matters we look at how Vietnam censorship has left bloggers a rare source of independent news.

We meet a Pakistani blogger who escaped an abduction in Islamabad and now runs the Dissident's Club: a bar in Paris, France for other exiled bloggers and critics like himself.

And we hear from an Eritrean who runs one of that country's largest broadcasters, from his Maryland home.

All that and more on The Inside Story: A Free Press Matters.

We begin in Vietnam. The country ranks behind only China and North Korea on the global press freedom index.

Censorship there is pervasive, with politics, foreign affairs and land disputes all taboo.

The extent of control went global this month when Hanoi banned the new Barbie movie over a fictional map.

Officials say the movie shows the 9-dash line outlining mostly maritime areas China says it controls.

But where the U.N. says Beijing has “no lawful effect.”

Warner Bros says it is a “whimsical” map not intended to make a political statement.

For journalists in Vietnam, they mostly steer clear of contentious issues like this, leaving bloggers to pick up the slack.

But doing so can be risky.

For Titi Tran, in Los Angeles, Cristina Caicedo Smit has the story:


For nine years, Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Van Hai has been a free man. But he had to leave his homeland for the U.S. to find that freedom.

Back in Vietnam, Hai, who is better known by his pen name Dieu Cay, was jailed for his work. But he never stopped thinking about how to end censorship — even while in prison.

Hai was inspired to start reporting more than 15 years ago, while traveling in Vietnam.

Nguyen Van Hai, Vietnamese Blogger:

I shared photos from my travels to various parts of the country. During those trips, I realized many people were living in poverty, facing corruption in localities and witnessing the abuse of power by officials.


But in Vietnam, one of the most repressive regions globally for press freedom, journalists are often too scared to report on such issues.

Bloggers like Hai are rare sources of freely reported news.

Nguyen Van Hai, Vietnamese Blogger:

We discussed the role of the people and the power of the press in an authoritarian society, where the state-controlled media suppresses anyone they want to, and the truth remains unknown.


In Vietnam, Hai quickly gained recognition for his coverage.

With friends he founded the Free Journalists Club, a group of bloggers reporting on stories about politics, human rights and other sensitive issues.

They found success — but at a cost.

Nguyen Van Hai, Vietnamese Blogger:

I and all the members of the Free Journalists Club were closely monitored by the authorities. They monitored us and then turned to suppression, beating.


In April 2008, police arrested Hai on accusations of tax evasion, a charge that rights groups say was an excuse to keep him silent.

In 2012, while still in prison, he was sentenced to a further 12 years for “propaganda against the state.” Most of his time was spent in solitary confinement.

Finally, in 2014, Vietnam freed Hai — but he had to go straight into exile. Now the city of Los Angeles is his refuge. But adapting to a new life has not been easy.

Platforms he and others set up to share news have been blocked and deleted, wiping out nearly a decade of work. And daily life can be a challenge.

Nguyen Van Hai, Vietnamese Blogger:

My life is not stable in terms of housing and finances because I dedicate all of my time to the movement. There were moments when I thought about giving up.


Vietnamese authorities did not respond to VOA’s request for comment about the country’s media environment.

Hai is still dedicated to advocating for a Vietnam that allows bloggers like him to write without fear of retaliation.

It’s a demanding role. An average day may involve meeting with officials, including congresswoman Michelle Steel, contributing news about human rights and Vietnam to a TV station, and recording a podcast on media independence and detained bloggers.

Others in the diaspora welcome his efforts.

Nguyen Ba Tung, Vietnam Human Rights Network President:

Vietnam’s communist party controls all media inside the country. People are thirsty for the free flow of information, but those who try to speak up or to talk about human rights have been increasingly stifled and repressed.


As for Hai, his vision of a Vietnam where people have easy access to a free press encourages him to keep up the fight.

For Titi Tran in Los Angeles, Cristina Caicedo Smit, VOA News.

JESSICA JERREAT, VOA's Press Freedom Editor:

Repressive regimes are increasingly trying to reach across borders to try to silence critics.

Press Freedom Reporter Liam Scott spoke to Grady Vaughan from Freedom House, here in Washington, about the trend known as transnational repression.

LIAM SCOTT, VOA Press Freedom Reporter:
So what is the goal of transnational repression? Why do governments engage in it?

Grady Vaughan, Freedom House

Transnational repression occurs when governments reach across borders to silence dissent among their exile and diaspora communities. That takes a number of forms and tactics including assassinations, assaults, renditions, and their more everyday tactics, such as spyware and coercion of family members back home.

Each act of transnational repression creates a ripple effect not only violating the human rights of the targeted individual, but also harming their colleagues, their family members, and possibly a whole community as an exile.

The main purpose of transnational oppression is to silence dissent and critical voices in exile and to sow discord among different members of these communities.

For this reason, journalists are often quite vulnerable as they serve a critical purpose and spreading these important messages and uncovering truths about these governments.

The primary targets of transnational oppression are journalists, human rights activists, former insiders, members of religious and ethnic minorities.

LIAM SCOTT, VOA Press Freedom Reporter:

Who are the main perpetrators of transnational repression?

Grady Vaughan, Freedom House:

We found that the worst perpetrators are China, Tajikistan, Turkey, Egypt and Russia. China alone accounts for 30% of all cases of all 854 incidents that we've recorded.

There are really two different forms of tactics — direct physical tactics, which we specifically monitor in our database. These include assaults, assassinations, threats, deportations, detentions. These types of incidents captured most media attention, but they're only the tip of the iceberg. For example, There are much many more daily incidents of transnational oppression that are non physical, such as spyware, online intimidation, and coercion of family members back home, which is an increasingly problematic aspect of this trend that is, unfortunately hard to address because it occurs in the exiles, country,

LIAM SCOTT, VOA Press Freedom Reporter:

Are there any accountability mechanisms in place to specifically address transnational repression?

Grady Vaughan, Freedom House:

Increasingly, we are seeing growing attention to the problem in countries like the United States, legislation is being discussed. And there has been legislation passed to address abuse by the International Criminal Police organization, Interpol.

I do think it is important to sanction and to hold governments accountable for threatening individuals in exile. If you don't send a message, then this practice may continue. That may often lead to detentions or unlawful deportations.

JESSICA JERREAT, VOA's Press Freedom Editor:

Arrest, threats against themselves and family members, fear of attack are all reasons behind some journalists making the difficult decision to leave their jobs and homes.

Take Taha Siddiqui. He pushed boundaries in Pakistan until an attempted kidnapping in 2018 awakened him to the dangers.

Now he helps other outspoken critics.

From Paris, Henry Ridgwell has the story.

HENRY RIDGWELL, Reporting for VOA:

On a warm Paris evening, Pakistani journalist in exile Taha Siddiqui raises the shutters on The Dissident Club — the bar he has set up in the heart of the French capital.

Siddiqui is preparing for another night of discussion and debate among fellow international exiles and local Parisians, fueled by plenty of food and drink.

It’s a long way from his roots in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan — as the son of conservative Muslim parents.

Taha Siddiqui, Dissident Club Founder:

When I went to university, this was the first time I started sort of questioning everything that was around me.

HENRY RIDGWELL, Reporting for VOA:

He had originally planned to study business in Karachi, Pakistan. But a chance encounter with journalists set him on a different path.

Taha Siddiqui, Dissident Club Founder:

I realized that OK, you know, there is this way of asking questions, of this method of asking questions, which is journalism.

HENRY RIDGWELL, Reporting for VOA:

From 2008, he began reporting from Pakistan for international media on rights abuses and state and military officials.

Taha Siddiqui, Dissident Club Founder:

And those stories, they started, you know, ruffling the wrong feathers.

HENRY RIDGWELL, Reporting for VOA:

He says the military repeatedly warned him to stop. But he refused.

And in January 2018, while travelling to the airport, Siddiqui’s life would change forever.

Armed assailants forced his taxi to stop and dragged him into a vehicle.

Siddiqui thought he would be locked up in a secret jail or possibly killed.

Taha Siddiqui, Dissident Club Founder:

The car was just about to move, and it was just like moving very, very, very slowly. So, I used my elbow, hit him really hard on his face, opened the door and jumped out of the moving car.

HENRY RIDGWELL, Reporting for VOA:

It was a wake-up call. Within weeks, Siddiqui and his family left for Paris.

Taha Siddiqui, Dissident Club Founder:

Since I've been in exile, I continue to write what I want, I continue to speak up the way I want, I continue to report on Pakistan.

HENRY RIDGWELL, Reporting for VOA:

Siddiqui’s remarkable journey from Pakistan to Paris is captured in his book “The Dissident Club”, named for the bar he set up: a traditional French joint with some unique additions: including a “dictators’ dartboard.

Taha Siddiqui, Dissident Club Founder:

Here in Paris, there's a big culture of cafes and bars, where people come together, to meet to exchange ideas, to discuss issues. And we create a bridge between these dissidents in exile and the Parisian society to make them meet and understand what we go through, what is happening in our countries.

HENRY RIDGWELL, Reporting for VOA:

France brings relative safety. But Siddiqui says that he still receives threats, and that agents from the Pakistani and Chinese embassies have visited the club.

Taha Siddiqui, Dissident Club Founder:

Threats follow us, even in exile.

HENRY RIDGWELL, Reporting for VOA:

Pakistan’s embassy in Paris did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.

Officials have previously denied involvement in attacks and threats to journalists.

Not far from Siddiqui’s club is the headquarters of Reporters Without Borders — a media watchdog all too aware of the dangers for exiled journalists.

Jonathan Dagher, Reporters Without Borders:

Even though they may be in safe territories, their families and their friends, their close ones, most of the time are still at home. And they are used against them in order to threaten them and pressure them.

HENRY RIDGWELL, Reporting for VOA:

Authoritarian regimes seem to use the same tactics, says Siddiqui.

Taha Siddiqui, Dissident Club Founder:

So we're like, okay, if they are collaborating and using the same playbook, so we should, on the other hand — activists, journalists, artists, academics — should get together and fight back together.

HENRY RIDGWELL, Reporting for VOA:

An exiled journalist — a proud dissident — striving to uphold press freedom.

Henry Ridgwell, for VOA News, Paris.

JESSICA JERREAT, VOA's Press Freedom Editor:

When it comes to regimes wanting to keep their populations from the truth, Iran goes to extremes.

Since the mass protests in September 2022, Tehran has ramped up efforts to silence its critics—at home, and abroad.

Liam Scott traveled to New York to speak with PEN America’s Karin Deutsch Karlekar.

LIAM SCOTT, VOA Press Freedom Reporter:

What have you been seeing in terms of repression facing journalists and writers and cultural figures in Iran over the past year?

Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Director, Writers at Risk, PEN America:

What we really saw with the uprising and the protests that started in September after the custodial death of Mahsa Amini was really, I would say, a sort of concerted and preemptive crackdown on anyone engaged in supporting, writing about, speaking out about the protests, and that included the creative community, so it included musicians, filmmakers, people like Toomaj Salehi, who recently has just been sentenced to a lengthy prison term.

Iran was was always sort of in our top five in the index that PEN America has been putting out for the last four years in terms of the countries around the world that jail and imprison writers, but what we saw last year, with the protests increasing and the increase in detentions as well is Iran jumped to number two. It is now the world's leading jailer of female writers. And I think it is testament to these sorts of power and importance of the creative community in Iran, which has been very strong, even in the face of repression and has continued to engage in creative work.

So it wasn't surprising that we saw this crackdown, but it does show that sort of the creative community which I think had a little bit more leeway than, let's say, journalists, activists, news, really now has come under the full force of the government repression as we've seen it, you know, both in terms of people inside around, but again, it's affecting many people outside around as well. We also saw a lot of writers, bloggers, journalists also being targeted as well.

For journalists, really what we'll see is that most of the critical journalists are outside the country. If they are inside Iran, then they are really forced to self-censor and not allowed for much leeway at all, without great risk to themselves. But what we see with Iran is that Iran also is very, very good at targeting dissident voices, journalists, writers outside its borders. It's one of, I would say, the leading countries in the world that engages in what we call now transnational repression.

LIAM SCOTT, VOA Press Freedom Reporter:

It's also interesting to see how crackdowns on journalists and writers intersects with women's rights in Iran.

Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Director, Writers at Risk, PEN America:

Even before the you know, the recent protests, which were focused on the death of a woman in custody for not wearing a proper hijab, so it was focused on women's rights issues, although these protests obviously are about much more than women's rights. They're really about a wide range of basic human rights and people's demand for them. But what we did see in previous years also what it was that women who particularly were writing about women's rights, even men writing about women's rights were being particularly are singled out for targeting and crackdowns and detention in Iran.

Many governments are, including Iran, are very worried about their international image. They know that with the internet and with sort of media communications, the way news flows around the world, they can't really just control the media within their country. They need to try to control the information space, in many different places. And so that really leads to the, sort of, I would say, concerted crackdown on dissident voices, of people who are living outside the country and who are engaged in critical writing or expression or journalism about the government.

LIAM SCOTT, VOA Press Freedom Reporter:

Does anything give you hope for the future about the state of press freedom in Iran?

Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Director, Writers at Risk, PEN America:

Both the Iranians within Iran and the Iranian diaspora are continuing to, to speak, to write. They're not letting these very repressive tactics, you know, get the better of them and silence them. So we see, you know, within the communities outside Iran, people are continuing to write. Inside Iran, you saw journalists, you know, there were very brave journalists that were trying to cover the protests, trying to cover what was going on.

You know, they also didn't back down in the face of what they probably knew was going to be a very severe crackdown. So even though people got detained, they got sentenced, you know, people are serving very long prison terms, other people are continuing to write and speak out. And we see people even speaking out from within prison. I think is very, very positive. And I don't think the Iranian government is completely able to silence these voices.

JESSICA JERREAT, VOA's Press Freedom Editor:

Pressure on independent media is ramping up globally.

But what happens to audiences when journalists are pushed out?

Veronica Villafañe takes us to Venezuela, where the rapid closure of radio stations is leaving listeners in the dark.


For more than 90 years, listeners across Venezuela have tuned in to Radio Caracas Radio, or RCR for short.

Based in the capital, RCR provided news and views, including those of Venezuela’s political opposition.

But in June, it became the latest station to fall silent, with its director citing the loss of its license in 2019, followed by internet and power shortages that made even broadcasting from YouTube difficult.

Jaime Nestares, RCR Director:

We've had difficulties with electricity and the internet. More and more, we’re seeing that Venezuelans have fewer and fewer resources to access social media and that audiences have plummeted.


Venezuela has seen a steady decline in independent media, and the country has a poor record for media freedom.

In a country where radio rules, the closures are a concern, says Daniela Alvarado of the Venezuela Press and Society Institute, a group that promotes independent journalism.

Daniela Alvarado, Venezuela Press and Society Institute:

We’re in a country where there are fewer and fewer newspapers. Less than one hundred … perhaps 35 to 40 that circulate. Radio has a greater relevance in society because it is the most accessible.


While independent media outlets overall are declining, the Communication Research Institute has said that Caracas has dozens of state-run media outlets that it uses to promote its message.

Nicolás Maduro, President of Venezuela:

We began to see the need to wage a higher battle, to activate several communication fronts and to defend the truth.


Analysts say state media is also used to attack and stigmatize opposition voices and journalists.

Daniela Alvarado, Venezuela Press and Society Institute:

Criminalization, smear campaigns, actions carried out by public officials through traditional channels such as television and radio. But in recent years we are also seeing an increase through digital platforms, on social media like Twitter.


Venezuela's Ministry of Communication and Information did not respond to VOA's request for comment.

But Diosdado Cabello, a senior lawmaker and member of Venezuela’s National Assembly, has said freedom of expression is guaranteed.

Diosdado Cabello, Senior Lawmaker:

Freedom of expression does not belong to the media. It does not belong to the owners of radios, TV stations or newspapers. Freedom of expression belongs to the citizens.


Former RCR host José Domingo Blanco is concerned about how the closure will affect news audiences.

José Domingo Blanco, Former RCR Host:

I wonder if they are really aware and conscious of what the closing of another media outlet means.


The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and media watchdog Reporters Without Borders have both cited concerns about the loss of independent sources of news in Venezuela.

For Adriana Núñez Rabascall in Caracas, Venezuela, Verónica Villafañe, VOA News.

JESSICA JERREAT, VOA's Press Freedom Editor:

A new life in exile often looks different for journalists who flee. But the dedication to press freedom remains.

Take Henok Tekle.

He runs one of Eritrea’s largest diaspora media outlets from his Maryland home.

He tells us his story:

Henok Tekle, Exeutive Director ERISAT:

There was [a] black hole in [the] media aspect in Eritrea. There is only one radio, one television and one newspaper since September 18, 2001.

We know the government shut down all the free press in Eritrea and the media in Eritrea operated by the regime.

Their main purpose is just disseminate the propaganda of the regime.

In 2018, this group of individuals, they come up and they say that we need to reach people inside Eritrea, they need to know what's [going on] inside and outside Eritrea.

They didn't have anything. They don't have journalists. They don't have money. But they know for sure that if they can start, people will come around and support them. Fast forward now four years, ERISAT is in a better position at all levels.

Now we have five different languages.

In 2022, we produced 1,600 programs.

The mission is to provide trusted, responsible, impartial journalism that informs engages, entertains and empowers Eritrea's diverse community.

There is a lot of threats. A lot of online trolls not only against me, also against my family.

We have also a shortwave radio. In case something happens to our satellite, we make sure that we still have a means to communicate with our people.

You know, that at least those people are listening to each other. trying to narrow the gap between the thinking of the people inside and outside the country, even in the diaspora.

So ERISAT is trying to be a platform, trying to be the magnet for all this different thinking.

JESSICA JERREAT, VOA's Press Freedom Editor:

That’s all for now. I’m Jessica Jerreat.

As we leave you we highlight the bravery and resiliency of Elena Milashina a fearless Russian journalist who was savagely attacked on assignment in Chechnya.

And we continue to focus on the detained American journalists Evan Gershkovich, jailed since March of this year in Russia, and freelancer Austin Tice, who has been missing in Syria since 2012.

We’ll see you next week on The Inside Story