Sunday 16 June 2013

The Vietnamese Style of Media Freedom (part 1)

"Coffee and tea reserved for NA deputies and secretaries. No service to the press and guards."
Ảnh: Lê Anh Dũng (VietNamNet)

A report on media activities in 2012, which Deputy Minister of Information and Communication Do Quy Doan delivered at the national conference on the tasks for the press during 2013, clearly stated, “As of March 2013, there are 812 printed media agencies nationwide with 1084 publications. Of these, there are 197 newspapers, including 84 newspapers at national and industrial level, and 113 provincial ones. In the area of electronic media, there are 336 social media networks and 1174 diversed news sites. The whole country has 67 broadcast agencies at national and provincial (local) level; three of these are central (national) agencies, including the Voice of Vietnam, the Vietnam Television, and the Vietnam Digital Television (VTC). The other 64 agencies are local broadcasters providing 172 channels (with 99 television channels and 73 radio ones). In terms of human resources, there are nearly 17,000 professional journalists granted press cards; and the Vietnam Journalists Association has 17,000 members in its network.

The language sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Indeed it remains almost the same through years, with only a slight change in statistical figures.  The press system in 2012, for example, is described as follows:

Mass media in general and the press in particular in present Vietnam has never attained such a growth in terms of the size, the quantity and the form. As of March 2012, our country has 786 printed media agencies, including 184 newspapers and over 592 magazines, with 1016 publications. Of these media agencies, there are 194 newspapers, including 81 national and 113 local newspapers; there are 592 magazines, including 475 national and 117 local ones; 1 national news agency; 2 national broadcast agencies; 1 industrial television agency; 64 provincial broadcast stations; 47 licensed cable broadcasters; 9 providers of cable TV signals. In the area of electronic meda, the entire nation has 61 electronic newspapers and magazines, 191 social media networks, and over 1000 diversified news sites…”

And below is the 2011 statistics:

As of March 2011, in printed media alone, there are 745 media agencies nationwide with 1003 publications. In broadcast, there are 67 broadcast agencies. Three of these are central (national) agencies, including the Voice of Vietnam, the Vietnam Television and the Vietnam Digital Television. The other 64 agencies are local broadcasters. They provide 200 domestic channels and 67 overseas ones. In the area of electronic media, our country has 46 electronic newspapers and magazines, 287 news sites owned by various media agencies and thousands of news sites owned by the diverse agencies of the Party, the Government, unions, associations, organizations, and enterprises. Moreover, as of March 2011, there are nearly 17,000 citizens granted press cards in our country and more than 5,000 people working as reporters without press cards. Many such reporters and editors have a good command of political awareness and professional knowledge.

The above passage, cited from a statement by the Ministry of Communication and Information of Vietnam, is typical of official reports issued by the Vietnamese government which are characterized by an emphasis on numbers and a deliberate neglect of analysis. The information in the passage is also what the Vietnamese authorities are likely to provide via mainstream media and the network of public opinion shapers when they are asked to present evidence supporting the idea that Vietnam has freedom of the press.   

This may be traced back to a common psychological trait of communists, that is, they are very fond of numbers and quantification. For instance, they consider them to be the strongest evidence of the nation’s economic achievements and social progress. They tend to cite the annual growth in gross domestic products or the average income per capita in Hanoi as from year X. as “undeniable evidence” that Vietnam is doing well in development. In the wartime, for the sake of conciseness in propaganda activities, they even quantified and shortened many terms unrelated to numbers such as “three sides, four conflicts” to describe the world’s political situation, “three preparations” to describe three qualities required from youths and “three responsibilities” to mean the same for women.  

One thing to note, however, is that the Vietnamese government has been using the number of media agencies and reporters as the clearest and the only evidence of freedom of the media in Vietnam. They do not go into details of how the media agencies and reporters work. They also ignore an extremely important aspect of the story, that is: The vast majority of the media agencies are owned and dominated by the state in various forms.

Openly giving secret instructions

A standard feature of communist press such as that of Vietnam is the “guiding role” of the Party’s Propaganda Department. Every week, this agency holds a meeting in Hanoi with the editors-in-chief of all major newspapers, in which it provides feedbacks and rebuke the media for what they have done in the previous week. The same meeting is held in Ho Chi Minh City by the local Propaganda Department and things are the same for other provinces and cities across Vietnam. 

These meetings are euphemized by the Party as “weekly discussions with the media.” In essence, they are meetings in which communist officials sermonize media leaders, trying to mould newspapers into the Party’s lines and thereby shaping public opinions. 

The Party must be well aware that this is an unlawful measure which runs counter to all journalism standards of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality and fairness. So on one hand, it orders the editors-in-chief to convey the Party’s editorial directions to journalists at home; on the other hand, it wants the press to keep extremely secret the fact that the Party maintains media control with such weekly meetings.

The minutes of the press guiding meeting  of March 29, 2011 was leaked to the blogosphere with instructions such as “don’t report on movie actress Hong Anh running for national assembly election”, “don’t mention the jurist doctorate of Cu Huy Ha Vu in his trial” (Vu is a prominent legal activist who was subsequently sentenced 7 years in prison for conducting propaganda against the state), “don’t report the vessel sinking in Ha Long so as not to badly influence the nation’s tourism industry”, “don’t cover issues related to atomic energy stations in Vietnam”, etc. The leader of the media agency whose name and signature appeared on the minutes, Vu Quang Huy, and some concerned staffs were deadly anxious about being imputed. 

Just prior to the trial of Cu Huy Ha Vu, journalists covering legal affairs for major newspapers all received a printed notice without sender’s name or title or seal, instructing the media, in reporting the trial, to praise the impartiality of the judges and the just sentence, “not to give commentaries or in-depth analyses”, “not to address the accused as J.D. as the accused can take advantage of his title”, etc. 

In another press guiding meeting last December, Mr. Nguyen The Ky, the Vice Director of the Central Department of Propaganda, rebuked the press for having reported that Chinese vessels cut the seismic cables of a Vietnamese oil exploration ship. He said the Chinese vessels just “unintentionally caused the cables to be broken” rather than “deliberately sabotaged them”. (In fact experts, for eg. some working for Petro Vietnam, insisted that China must not have done anything unintentionally.) Ky’s preach was wired and posted to web, and he suffered from a public outcry online. Vietnamese BBC, an oversea media agency, later had an interview with Ky, where he explained that he only meant to “discuss” this matter with the press. However, he could not mould bloggers into thinking that the Party puts national interest above their comradeship with the Chinese communist party or that the Party leaves the press independent. Both Ky and the Propaganda Department were annoyed with the leakage of “guidance and propaganda information”. Arguably in the next meeting, they were extra vigilant over the risk of being recorded, and went short of searching every attendant for recording devices.

SMS and phone instructions

The press, be noticed that tomorrow, July 1, is the Chinese Communist Party’s Establishment Day. Reporting on anti-China protests and territorial disputes between Vietnam and China is strictly prohibited.” This text message of June 30, 2012, is just one of numerous SMS instructions from media control agencies to leaders of major media agencies. 

In addition to text messages, phone calls and oral instructions have also been used to order the press “not to report this incidence”, “not to highlight that case”, “to restrict covering these topics”, etc. This proves to be a wise technique of controlling the media for its being effective and subtle, leaving no written form, signature or seal. As there’s not any evidence left of the “guidance” imposed upon the press, “hostile forces” simply cannot allege that freedom of the press in Vietnam is restricted – all what they say is slanderous.

More than anyone else, the Communist Party – herein represented by the propagandists and public security machinery – is aware of the power of secrecy. Transparency only means self-defamation and suicide. Thereby arises a risk which the Party keeps hostile to and vigilant against, that is the sympathy between mainstream media and unofficial media, or the leakage of information from the “right side” to the “left side” press (see note), in the words of former Minister of Information and Communication Le Doan Hop.  

(to be continued)


Note: Le Doan Hop, in his office tenure, said in an interview given to the Sai Gon Giai Phong on August 3, 2007, “You the press are absolutely free if you keep to the right side of the road, and we are making efforts to keep you, comrades, on the right side.” Possibly from that time on, Hop’s concepts of “right side” and “left side” in media gave rise to a famous metaphor, “right side press” to mean state-owned newspapers as opposed to “left side press” to mean “reactionary”, out-of-state-control blogs.