Features | Society | Southeast Asia

Vietnam’s Murky Media Picture

A new media law has been widely criticized as further curtailing press freedom in Vietnam. But the situation is more complex than many think.

By Bridget O'Flaherty for

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.’

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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.

As Catherine McKinley, a former Dow Jones correspondent in Hanoi, pointed out in a 2008 research paper titled Can a State-Owned Media Effectively Monitor Corruption?, newspapers based in southern Ho Chi Minh City—away from the ruling party machinery of the capital— are usually full of harder hitting reporting and less overt propaganda. Indeed, Thanh Nien News and Tuoi Tre (both owned by youth organizations a couple of steps removed from the Communist Party proper) often contain thoroughly investigated stories about environmental issues—and sometimes even corruption.

Indeed, McKinley has suggested the government, aware that corruption is one of the biggest problems it faces, has openly asked papers to pursue stories on graft.

Again, though, the picture is murky. Back in 2008, two journalists investigating corruption in the Transport Ministry were arrested for ‘abuse of power’ after reporting on the so-called PMU18 scandal, in which millions of dollars of aid money was allegedly gambled away on football matches by Party cadres.

The reality is that although the government might be comfortable with smaller cases involving local officials being investigated—plenty of papers report stories, and journalist Hung was a veteran of these kinds of problems in the Mekong Delta—major cases can be a different matter.

And, of course, the government can still quickly issue a ban on reporting of any subject it chooses. Last year, during Hanoi’s millennium celebrations, a huge cache of fireworks meant for the end of the ten-day celebrations exploded unexpectedly, killing four people. A kite festival was being held at the time at the nearby My Dinh Stadium, meaning the press were quick off the mark to publish stories on their papers’ websites. (The huge cloud of smoke rising over the city was something of a giveaway).

Yet within an hour of news going up, it was pulled off most news sites; only Twitter, Facebook and various blogs contained information or footage of the event. Papers later ran sanitized versions of the story and one, Voice of Vietnam, remained focused on the ‘loveliness’ of the kites rather than the smoke swirling around them. The government’s hand was invisible yet clear.

More recent has been the case of VietnamNet Editor Nguyen Anh Tuan. According to sources who have asked to remain anonymous, his removal from the post was no surprise. His dismissal, allegedly so he could take up a less ‘contentious’ government post, is said to have been on the cards since late last year, largely over the paper’s reporting on sensitive issues such as the bauxite mines in the Central Highlands, the sinking of state-owned shipbuilder Vinashin, reports on China and—possibly most importantly—ongoing calls for transparency and greater democracy within the Communist Party itself.

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If true, it would be in keeping with the common practice of shunting editors to dull ministry jobs and appointing bureaucrats rather than newsmen to senior positions in the media.

‘He (Tuan) is talented, a visionary, but not universally popular,’ said one former colleague who asked not to be named. ‘It's not just his willingness to push the envelope with stories advocating more openness in the party and government. Tuan's relative flamboyance doubtless annoys many in the relentlessly grey upper reaches of the system.’  

And now, journalists have a new, hazy press law from these same upper reaches to contend with. Decree No. 2 went into effect in late February, but was already being reported on in the local press in January.

Human Rights Watch, in a February 24 press release, called it a ‘further blow to freedom of expression in Vietnam’ and criticized the law’s ‘overly vague and broad’ provisions, including allowing for fines for journalists and their newspapers of between $50 and $2000. 

According to the new rules, reporters must always publish their sources of information, while numerous government departments now have the authority to investigate and punish infractions. This, according to HRW, is a particularly bad idea in a country where corruption is ‘endemic.’ It may also make for confusing regulation, given the sometimes chaotic nature of cooperation between departments and Vietnam’s slow, disorganized bureaucracy. 

But there is a bright spot. As one Vietnamese journalist speaking off-the-record pointed out, the law also includes provisions for punishing government departments that fail to assist the media with enquiries. This could have real implications in a country where many government officials are wary of speaking to reporters, either because they don’t know what they are allowed to say, because they're scared of looking ignorant, or just because they can’t be bothered.

State ownership, interference, crackdowns and arrests are all undoubtedly features of Vietnam’s media. But the complicated relationship between reporters and the government suggest it’s more than just propaganda.