Earlier this month a popular satellite television provider in Vietnam took the drastic step of dropping 21 foreign channels, including BBC and CNN. The reason cited was Decision 20, a guiding document for the law that sets out controversial new translation and editing rules.
The legislation, which Hanoi says will make foreign channels more accessible to Vietnamese audiences, has roused staunch objections over cost, censorship and vague wording since it was passed in 2011, and implementation has already been postponed once.
However, a call to the Ministry of Information and Communication for clarification didn’t turn out exactly as planned. A senior official said the decision had not, in fact, been implemented. Shortly afterwards foreign channels also disappeared from state-run giant Vietnam Television. Reporters were left scratching their heads.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
One particular bone of contention among critics was a requirement that news channels pay a Vietnamese agent for a 100 per cent “summary” translation. However, no one could figure out what “summary” meant, and translating a round-the-clock news channel was deemed prohibitively expensive.
Aside from the obvious commercial aspect, many in the television industry were puzzled by the thinking behind the decision.
"If something’s sensitive why do they want to translate it in the first place? It defies logic,” one employee at a Vietnamese television company said.
It then emerged that the ministry had quietly removed these impediments for news channels in an amendment to the regulations, known as Decision 18A, which was signed off by Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan in March.
To give people time to adjust, the amended Decision 20 was in force but not being enforced.
That didn’t stop some providers from erring on the side of caution and removing channels that did not comply with the requirements that remained, namely getting an editing licence. The licence forces all foreign channels to pay an authorized Vietnamese agent to edit content before it is distributed publicly on Vietnamese cable and satellite platforms.
Rather obviously, the system raises concerns about censorship. News channels working in Asia are used to governments censoring content for moral and political reasons, but signing a contract to enable the process is another matter.
“The particular problem caused by Vietnam’s rather unclear situation is that it seems that the news channels would be asked to sign off on their own censorship,” said John Medeiros, chief policy officer at pay-tv industry body CASBAA.
By the time Decision 20 came into effect only 16 foreign channels had editing licences. Since then, the ministry has handed out around a dozen more. Despite the fact most still do not have one, after a week of meetings, all foreign channels are now back on air. How long they will stay there remains to be seen.
"BBC World News is committed to delivering high quality impartial news to audiences across Vietnam and we are in continued discussions with Vietnamese authorities on the matter,” a BBC spokeswoman said.
With some officials involved in negotiations pushing for the government to scrap the legislation altogether, it could be a while before any more “decisions” are made.