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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.