Events over the past several weeks have cast an unflattering light on media freedom in Vietnam. At the end of January, a reporter for The Laborer newspaper in southern Vietnam died after being doused with chemicals and set on fire. Late last month, a new press law came into effect that introduces fines for reporters for vaguely defined infractions, and obliges them to publish their sources. And just days ago, the editor of an outspoken (for Vietnam, at least) news website called VietnamNet ‘resigned’ under mysterious circumstances, offering no reason for his decision.
Vietnam's expats often post news stories about their adopted country through their Facebook profiles, and despite the restrictions, word spread quickly about how Le Hoang Hung had apparently been burned as he slept by an intruder. In his 1955 classic about the First Indochina War, The Quiet American, Graham Greene derided the US press corps for their ‘immature cynicism.’ Now, it seems, virtually everyone is a cynic.
‘Somehow I don’t think this will make it into the local media,’ one poster noted, reflecting the views of many. Foreigners in Vietnam tend to dismiss all media in the country as propaganda. Yet while the front pages of English language daily Vietnam News may have a penchant for running headlines boasting of the strong ties Vietnam has with, say, Burkina Faso, the fact that many also believed a Vietnamese reporter had been murdered for his investigative work suggests the picture is actually complex.
As soon as the attack on Hung hit the news, international rights groups issued calls for it to be investigated fully, while others noted his track record of fearless reporting and uncovering of corruption. However, there was more to the case than how it initially appeared. Hung’s wife confessed to burning him as a kind of retribution gone awry after he refused to sell the family home to pay off her $50,000 worth of Cambodian gambling debts.
‘Nearly all my sources doubted the attack was retribution for his journalism, even before the wife turned herself in,’ says Geoffrey Cain, a Fulbright researcher and media analyst. ‘Hung wasn't a big player in the Vietnamese journalism scene, and not the kind of guy who would likely be targeted in a really high-profile way…gruesome retribution against journalists is unprecedented in Vietnam.’
Still, while flagrant retribution may not usually be on the cards, Vietnam still has significant restrictions on press freedom. Reporters Without Borders, for example, ranks it 165 out of a possible 178 nations—above North Korea, but below Libya.
But there’s more to the media in Vietnam than just a straightforward government monopoly on coverage. Though all media is state owned, and thus state controlled, different papers are owned by different government bodies.