Freedom of the Press, Vietnamese Style
Every week in Hanoi, the Central Propaganda Commission of the Vietnamese Communist Party, and in Ho Chi Minh City, the commission's southern regional office, convene "guidance meetings" with the managing editors of the country's important national newspapers.
Not incidentally, the editors are all party members. Officials of the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Public Security are also present. Similar meetings take place in every province, a process emblematic of just how complete the control of the press is in Vietnam. At these meetings, someone from the Propaganda Commission rates each paper's performance during the previous week – commending those who have toed the line, reprimanding and sometimes punishing those who have strayed.
In good cop/bad cop fashion, the party's overseers mix counseling and persuasion with threats and a bit of repression. Although there's no legal basis for it, the party regards the media as "propaganda forces" subject to its guidance and instruction. Probably the party itself recognizes the absurdity of this subjugation, which tramples on legal and journalistic principles.
On the one hand, the Propaganda Department instructs the "comrade editors and publishers" to make sure that the staff back in the office is "fully oriented," while on the other hand it insists that every one of them keeps the party's instructions strictly confidential.
The existence and content of these weekly meetings sometimes leaks out into the blogosphere, the online forums beyond the reach of the Propaganda Department. On March 29, 2011, it seems, editors were instructed not to report that movie actress Hong Anh had declared her independent candidacy for a National Assembly seat; not to use "Doctor Vu" when referring to dissident activist Cu Huy Ha Vu, then facing trial on charges of "propagandizing against the state;" to bury reports that nine foreign tourists died when a Halong Bay tour boat capsized; and to eschew investigation of the nation's decision to build a nuclear power plant.
Vu's trial was the object of particularly heavy-handed guidance. Journalists covering it for major newspapers received unsigned notices on plain paper enjoining them to praise the impartiality of the judges and the correctness of the sentence, and to refrain from commentary or in-depth analysis.
Telephone calls and oral instructions expedite guidance to editors on sensitive subjects. Don't report this incident, they're told; don't highlight that case, restrict coverage of these topics. Because no tangible evidence remains that the guidance was transmitted, when it's alleged that the press was gagged on such and such a story, the officials of the Ministry of Information can reply with straight faces that Vietnam is being slandered by "hostile forces."
In a clandestine recording circulated soon after a guidance meeting in December 2012, Propaganda Department Vice Director Nguyen The Ky is heard rebuking the press for reporting that Chinese vessels had cut the cables of seismic gear being towed by a Vietnamese exploration ship. It doesn't matter that the reports cite sources in the state oil company and Foreign Ministry. "You must clarify that the Chinese vessels just unintentionally caused the cables to be broken," Ky said; "it was not an act of deliberate sabotage against us."
The recording was immediately posted on dissident blogs and then on the Vietnamese language service of the BBC. Invited to comment, Ky told the BBC that he was only exchanging professional opinions with the editors.
Clearly the Propaganda Department was mightily embarrassed by the leak. It's rumored that at the guidance meeting the following week, editors were subjected to a body search for hidden recording devices.
The press card system is a sophisticated method of controlling reporters. No card, no access. Without a press card, reporters can interview ordinary people, but can't hope to meet high-ranking officials, visit contacts at public offices or cover official workshops or conferences.
The system has been in operation for a long time. In 2007, it was legalized by government circular. The circular requires the issuing official to certify, inter alia, that a would-be journalist has been properly recommended by the paper, magazine or broadcaster that wishes to employ him, by the local Department of Information and the local branch of the Vietnam Journalists Association, and "has not been rebuked in the previous 12 months."
The press card system illustrates the blurry boundary between Vietnam's state sector, its ruling party and civil society. Ostensibly the press is an institution of civil society, and newspapers, magazines and broadcasters are not official agencies.
Legally speaking, in view of the Vietnamese Constitution's guarantee in Article 69 of "freedom of opinion and speech, freedom of the press, [and] the right to be informed", the state has no standing to regulate who is or is not a journalist, unless, of course, that promise is trumped by the State's obligation in Article 33 to "ban all activity in the field of . . . culture that is detrimental to national interests. . . ."
In any event, the Propaganda Department asserts its right, prescribing that Vietnam's media are the "voice of party organizations, State bodies and social organizations." Vietnam's Law on the Media further requires reporters to "propagandize, propagate the doctrine and policies of the party, the laws of the State, and national and world cultural, scientific and technical achievements in accordance with the guiding principles and aims of media organizations."
The result is that a great many journalists are subject to the direction of apparatchiks whose capacity for communication is decidedly inferior to theirs.
Without a press card, one is not recognized as a journalist and can be barred with no explanation at all from events at the whim of the organizing body, the police or civil authorities.
Vietnam's authorities deliberately manipulate this situation. They seek to pit "right side" (press card-bearing) reporters against "left side" (free) reporters, including bloggers. They don't always succeed. The party's propaganda and security apparatus know better than anyone the power of secrecy. Openness and transparency are their enemy. Yet the controllers of information now face a new danger: card-carrying journalists are leaking suppressed stories to their colleagues in the blogosphere.
On October 30 last year, Huyen Trang was detained and interrogated at a Ho Chi Minh City police station. When she explained that she was a reporter for the Catholic Church-affiliated Redemptorist News Service, police officers shouted at her "Who recognized you? Where is your press card? You are all a band of reactionary parasites!"
Trang's experience is unexceptional. Free journalists are often harassed or even assaulted by the police or by ruffians. Their denunciations and complaints are ignored because they are not "journalists performing duties" in the eyes of the authorities. Dieu Cay and Ta Phong Tan are serving long prison terms chiefly because they organized a "Club of Free Journalists."
Truong Duy Nhat quit his career as an official journalist to become a blogger. He was arrested on May 26 on a charge of "abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State, the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens" under Article 258 of the Penal Code.
Hearing Nhat was in custody, the mainstream journalist Duc Hien commented on his Facebook page that "the thing is, a journalist must be able to access information. If he or she lacks the ability or opportunity to access information, his or her viewpoint will be only insults or libels or parroting others' opinions. . . ."
Hien's arrogant comment did not sit well with dissident bloggers, yet it must be conceded that he was right from the viewpoint of the authorities. Differential access to information creates a chasm between journalist and blogger and between a card-carrying journalist and an independent (free) one.
Vietnam does not figure among the deadlier countries to be a journalist. The State doesn't need to kill journalists to control the media because by and large, Vietnam's press card-carrying journalists are not allowed to do work that is worth being killed for. Reporters are rarely independent and investigative; there is nothing close to anti-corruption journalism and therefore the press does not pose a danger to vested interests.
A writer for the dissident blog Anh Ba Sam commented recently that "in this beautiful socialist country of ours, there are only two inner sanctums from which no secrets emerge. One is our prisons; the other is the party's politburo." That's absolutely right.
Every matter that may erode the legitimacy of the regime or threaten the survival of the party is treated as a state secret or as a "special case." Chief among these in recent years is Vietnam's relationship with China.
The press will never find a written explanation of the party's posture vis-a-vis its Chinese counterpart or a document addressing its management of the media in this matter. The public can perceive at best that this is a highly sensitive matter, proven by the occasional punishments meted out to media that stray over an invisible red line, by the lengths that organizers go to to limit reporters' access to international academic conferences on the South China Sea territorial disputes or by stipulations that reportage on anti-China street demonstrations must "expose the plots of reactionaries to exploit patriotic sentiment."
The official media can see the regime's unease more clearly. It's expressed in the countless cautionary telephone calls to editors, publishers and even ordinary reporters when a story is breaking. The media are forbidden to relay this anxiety to the public, no matter how hungry readers are for insights on the deepening crisis with China.
When the supply of information fails to meet the demand for it, certain inevitable consequences follow:
Gossip and rumor dominate the discourse. Conspiracy theories are widespread, for example, the oft-heard notion that "the party has sold our national territory to China." Reporters who strive to remain rational and open-minded are starved for information they can use to rebut such rumors. Indeed, given that the press is barred from reporting all it knows, given the barrage of "guidance" by SMS, phone and vague directives, a truly rational journalist cannot help asking himself or herself: "What is the government really doing?"
Coverage of South China Sea disputes becomes a forbidden fruit so appealing that some newspapers and journalists feel tempted to cross red lines to harvest it, although they may not have done proper spadework. Sovereignty disputes are an inherently challenging subject, and the press has few reliable experts and reference resources.
There's truth, therefore, in Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga's complaint that "some of the media appear to consider national sovereignty as a hot topic for building readership and increasing advertising revenues."
Shocking headlines, unverified anecdotes and misleading "facts" crowd out quality reportage. Reporters search out sources with a strong bias against China. The poor quality of mainstream journalism provides the regime plenty of excuses to maintain its grip on the press, especially with regard to the South China Sea crisis.
Defenders of the regime often argue that the answers are perfectly clear to those who really seek to become informed, e.g., if one is sufficiently concerned about the trend of Vietnam's relations with China, one must study harder. Put that way, the regime is under no obligation to be more transparent or informative in its dealings with the public or the national media.
(Pham Doan Trang is a reporter without a press card. A longer version of this story first appeared in three parts on her blog, www.phamdoantrang.com in June 2013.)