Monday, January 8, 2007

I feel sorrow, oh, I feel dream

“If you're a journalist looking to cover the biggest stories of our time there are essentially two options: Islamic fundamentalism and the rise of China. Both are multi-generational in their scope, and they will both have a huge impact on the world's future. To use journalistic parlance, they are "stories with legs".

So it's no surprise that journalists are flocking to the Middle East and China. And so it should also come as no surprise that many of those same journalists are turning out books about these subjects faster than most people can keep up.”

When I read these lines from a review by Jeremy Hurewitz on the Asia Times a few months ago, I saw more clearly than ever before how far we are lagging behind the west.

When, I wonder, Vietnamese journalists can find themselves in “hot spots” of the world to report news, just as their western colleagues are doing everyday. How long will it take until we can freely go to every part of the world to do our job without being beset with millions of things, including a restricted financial budget? Money shortage has always been a haunting issue for needy newspapers in Vietnam whereas very few journalists can live independent of sponsor. Poor Vietnamese jounalists, if only they could work as happy freelancers, free from all kinds of oppression: censor, poverty, harassment, nasty competition in hostile environments, etc.

When the US anti-terrorist war broke out in Afghanistan in 2001 fall, the whole world press was seething with enthusiasism, and it seemed like every journalist was in a rush for news reported from the hotbed of war. Something like an irresistable temptation was telling you, “If you are a real journalist, you can’t stay outside, dear. You have to get there, to the boilingpot in minor Asia, to tell the world what people are doing there, and to tell yourself who you are.” I bet that these thoughts obsessed so many journalists of those days, and Vietnamese journalists were not exceptions.

Actually, An Ninh The Gioi, the best-selling rag in Vietnam, was one of the few newspapers that could manage to send their reporters to Pakistan. (Remember, the place was Afghanistan’s neighbouring country, not the battleground.) But what they did would later turn out to be solely a big ridiculous joke. The self-claimed war reporters would stay at the hotel, having lunch with other guests, chatting with them, gathering some trivial things about the war, then they would write (a more high-tech way was to email) the piece of news to the Hanoi-based bureau. The head quarter would then rewrite the piece with a more attractive tone and have it published as “top story” on the newspaper. They must, of course, never forget making the most of design elements - you know, large font headlines running across the page, written in a striking language and accompanied with blurred, frightening black & white photos. That was more than enough for a reportage “from the scene”. Design elements are always needed in communication and I am not suspicious of their ability to attract audiences and to add values to the plain text of an article. The only thing that matters is that they were intentionally overused in this case to shield the nonsenses written by a goddamned self-claimed reporter and international relations analysist!

And remember, too, that not every reporters working for the An Ninh The Gioi had the honour of “reporting from the combat zones of minor Asia”. Only high-class reporter and chief analysist Nguyen Quang Thieu did.

I believed that more than 100 journalists, after reading Thieu’s articles, must have thought to themselves, “Damn him, the liar. Any journalist can write the same rubbish thing without going anywhere.” And I was among them. But we must also have admitted that we did not and might never have just a little chance to do what Nguyen Quang Thieu had done. If asked, “OK, you are paid by the bureau to go to the frontline, and work as a real war reporter there. Can you guarantee that your articles will be masterpieces?,” my reply would be a dead silence. I don’t know if I can, and I can’t be sure of anything before I finish it.

So shut up, ok?

We know, colleagues, if we open our lips to say something bad about someone considered by many to be respectful, there will be dozens of criticisms and challenges against us, like, “OK, can you do better than them? Silence? Hesitation? No, you can’t? So shut up, will you?”. Little by little, our prudence has grown big. We know well now that the safest way is always to hold our mind back, or else we will make fool of ourselves.

Every journalist wishes to have chances to assert themselves. But if you work in Vietnam, the chances will be faint hope in the absence of independence and freedom. And I don’t say this as a cynic. I say it out of belief.

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