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A Vietnamese satellite TV company stopped airing international channels including BBC and CNN on Thursday, citing a law that foreign governments have warned would result in international news and entertainment channels ending their broadcasts in a country increasingly cracking down on freedom of expression.
Underlining the confusion that has reigned about the law's scope and implementation, Vietnam's other major cable and satellite providers continued to broadcast as normal. The government said international news channels were exempt from one main aspect of the law requiring broadcasters to translate their content into Vietnamese before airing it.
The United States and other governments, especially those with national broadcasters, have been urging Hanoi to abandon or modify the law, which came into effect on Wednesday.
Vietnam's government is increasingly restricting freedom of political and religion expression in general, especially online. All foreign news channels are currently broadcast into the country with a half-hour delay, to allow sensitive content to be blocked if needed. The perception created by the new broadcasting law of additional restrictions on foreign businesses adds to Vietnam's difficulties in attracting investment at a time when its economic growth has slowed.
"We regret that the effect of the regulatory process as of today seems to be to restrict access of numerous international channels to the Vietnam market," said John Medeiros, chief policy officer for the Hong Kong-based Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia. "Consumers everywhere else in Southeast Asia enjoy the opportunity to view a wide mix of domestic and international television."
The association had previously said that complying with the translation requirement was expensive, unpractical and amounted to censorship.
The K+ satellite provider, a joint venture between a local company and Canal Overseas, a wholly owned subsidiary of France's Canal + group, said on its website it had cut the signals of 21 foreign channels as a result of the regulation.
Asked why it had done so, a woman at the public relations section at the channel said "it was complying with regulations." She declined to give her name because it wasn't an official company response.
In a statement, the BBC said it was committed to delivering news across Vietnam and was "in continued discussions with Vietnamese authorities on the matter."
Hoang Vinh Bao, director of the broadcast and television department at the Ministry of Information and Communications, said a revision to the law on March 29 meant that foreign news channels like BBC and CNN didn't have to have their broadcasts translated into Vietnamese.
Asked why one provider had blocked foreign broadcasts, Bao said: "We will carry out inspections to make sure that they all comply with the regulations."
The law, known as "Decision 20", requires that translation and editing be performed by an agency licensed by the government and that content is "appropriate to the people's healthy needs and does not violate Vietnamese press law." It also states that commercials running on foreign channels must be made in Vietnam.
Late last year, the government said in a statement that the law was aimed at "at facilitating easier access for Vietnamese people to the foreign language TV programs."
The statement acknowledged the concerns of foreign governments, saying it "continues to listen to and consider ideas from concerned parties."