By: Nguyen Van Phu

Travelling abroad as a journalist, I am frequently asked, “Does Vietnam have freedom of the press?” My beating-about-the-bush answer often starts with something like, “You have to understand that all press in Vietnam is owned by the government.”

Unfortunately, I can no longer get away with such an apologetic opening. Although nobody admits it, more and more Vietnamese newspapers and magazines, both printed and online, are owned by private companies. This encouraging trend may foster a free press as long as the government chooses to look the other way.

A quick visit to any sidewalk news stall in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City will confirm this trend. There one finds an array of familiar English-language mastheads such as Elle, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, Her World, Esquire or Women’s Health… on display with the content entirely in Vietnamese, partly localized and somewhat titillating. It is highly doubtful that Vietnam’s Politburo would care to educate its people on how to have the best date or why men cheat.

As current practice goes, a local private company deals with the foreign owner of the magazine to buy the franchise right to publish it in Vietnam. Then it makes another deal with some local government organizations or government-sponsored associations able to serve as the publication’s official licensee, because only these bodies are legally allowed to publish. The local company runs everything and pays the official licensee a fee. The latter’s job is to make sure nothing sensitive or “politically incorrect” is published.

Forbes Vietnam, launched June this year, is the latest example of such practice. When Forbes introduced its new venture as “a licensing agreement between Forbes Media LLC and Interactive Media, an IDG Ventures Vietnam portfolio company, and in cooperation with Bao Van Hoa,” we have all the three usual partners: Forbes as the masthead owner, Interactive Media as the local company that runs Forbes Vietnam operations and Van Hoa magazine as the official licensee. Bao Van Hoa is conveniently the organ of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

Things are not so clear-cut in other cases. Take VnExpress.net, the online newspaper that has the largest number of daily visitors. On paper, it belongs to the Ministry of Science and Technology but for all intents and purposes, it is owned and run by FPT, an information technology company that is listed on the Ho Chi Minh City Stock Exchange. FPT’s prospectus states proudly that VnExpress.net, one of its subsidiaries, is the first online newspaper ever licensed. Its financial statements listed the revenue of VnExpress.net. Under the FPT umbrella there are a host of other online newspapers, mostly in the entertainment field and all doing quite well financially.

The murkiness reaches an even more sophisticated level when it comes to “electronic bulletins” which by all appearances look exactly like any other national online newspapers. The law says private companies can obtain licenses to set up “electronic bulletins” and the only catch is that they have to reprint stories from other newspapers and official news sources. While they cannot produce news, nobody forbids them (or more precisely their staff) to produce news for other newspapers. So these “electronic bulletins” publish stories in a roundabout way – their “reporters” file a story to an official “friendly” newspaper and then immediately reprint the same story on their own “bulletin”. This way they bypass the regulations and still manage to run a full-fledged newspaper.

It’s not surprising that many of those “electronic bulletins” subscribe to sensationalism to attract viewers and therefore advertisers. They range from celebrity gossips to sex tips or scandals. According to Nghe bao (Journalism) Magazine, there are 1,174 such electronic bulletins. In Ho Chi Minh City alone, 270 have been licensed. Whenever they don’t have enough scandals to write about, they create scandals on their own. Publicity-hungry B-class singers and actresses are more than ready to comply. A few of them try to turn into professional business and financial news providers with some success.

How does one explain the government’s tolerance toward such murky practices?

Some say officials turn a blind eye to the phenomenon because they see these media companies as a source of under-the-table income; others say officials must have an explicit green light from high above to ignore operations of such magnitude.

In short, private publications with fresh views are a welcome change for many readers. Vietnam is ripe for a truly private press but the authorities are not ready. Years of denial have made unthinkable official admission that a private press exists. The regime therefore just looks the other way and allows its de facto emergence.

There is already a precedent in book publishing, a sphere once strictly reserved for state-owned publishing houses. Then came private “contributors” who helped source and prepare manuscripts, quietly at first and later formally acknowledged. Now on the cover of new books, readers can find the name of a state-owned publishing house and next to it the name of a private company that did the real work and had to pay certain fee to the former.

Until that same arrangement is formally acknowledged for the local press, real editors and reporters still have to hide behind bogus state news organs. That situation does not bode well for investigative reporting and real journalism. The tacit arrangement seems to be this: you don’t touch sensitive subjects and I don’t question your legal status. No wonder Forbes Vietnam has mostly featured puff pieces on successful entrepreneurs while ignoring the harsh reality of Vietnam’s floundering economy.

Meanwhile the public at large does not seem to care. On sensitive subjects, Vietnamese take their news from the blogs and social network postings that the mainstream media are forbidden to address.

(Nguyen Van Phu is the Managing Editor of Thoi bao Kinh te Saigon (the Saigon Economic Times).)