James Borton eyes the media
From the stoops of small, family-run shops to stalls along the
Red River to the old Hanoi Quarter on Ta Hien Street, old and
young alike will soon be celebrating Tet - the Vietnamese New
Year. The national holiday, which falls in late January or early
February depending on the moon, is a time for families and
ancestral remembrances. For the media, however, there is little
time for celebrations, with competition heating up as lifelines
to once-enshrined state subsidies and the standard receipt of
gratuity envelopes from business enterprises ends.
More journalists are now engaged in improving the media's
professional skills and enhancing journalistic integrity. But
progress in Vietnam is not easy to chart; sometimes every step
forward seems to be paired with a move back, in the direction of
a hardliner communist past. For the most part, however,
Vietnam's state-controlled media readily accept the inevitable:
in order to keep pace with the doi moi, renovation market
reforms, Hanoi's Ministry of Culture and Information has issued
a call to increase the quality of its media, invest in new media
technologies, and improve the training of its more than 11,000
reporters, more than 35% of whom are women.
"Information communication technologies are contributing to
major shifts in our culture, society and media," said Nguyen Ahn
Tuan, chief executive of the state-owned enterprise Value Added
Software Company (VASC) and founder of the bilingual news
website, VietnamNet Bridge.
Online reporting has been adopted by many of Vietnam's major
media, and digital-era publishing has become widely popular,
despite periodic Ministry of Public Security crackdowns on
Internet access at many unlicensed cafes.
Vietnam's nearly 700 newspapers and periodicals published by
more than 400 publishers are all controlled by the Communist
Party, leaving no room for private media. The Vietnamese press
must also adhere to guidelines firmly established by the
powerful Ministry of Culture and Information. Vietnam's press
remains, for all purposes, still a party outlet for educating
the public and filtering information - not for independent news
reporting. But there are signs of an emerging cadre of newspaper
editors and professional journalists who welcome an adoption of
Western-style reporting standards.
Controlled by the Vietnam
Communist Party Central Committee's Propaganda and Training
Department, the press adheres to guidelines firmly established
by the powerful Ministry of Culture and Information. For
example, Nhan Dan, is the party newspaper of record. Last year,
for instance, the party's secretary general, Nong Duc Manh,
called on the press to upgrade reporting standards and get out
into the countryside to record the views of the people.
"Correspondents and editors must constantly improve not only
their professional skills, and in that process, root out
corruption and social ills while keeping close contact with
people from all walks of life," stated Manh during a 2004 press
conference on the media.
This media shift was also reinforced last year by Hong Vinh,
deputy head of the Central Commission on Culture and Ideology,
at a media conference held in Hanoi. Vinh suggested that the
media are deeply engaged in improving professional skills, and
in the process offer protection of the rights of all citizens
and welcome a renewed criticism of any abuses.
Several newspapers in Ho Chi Minh City have embraced this call
for journalistic integrity and are now attempting to inject some
infused professionalism into their publications. These include
the Saigon Group, Thanh Nien, Lao Dong and Tuoi Tre, four
publications now free of all state-issued publishing subsidies.
As a result, many reporters no longer eschew the party line.
Some bold reporters have even written critical reports on
sensitive dam construction projects that threaten the livelihood
of fishermen and farmers in the north.
More recently, a state-sanctioned Vietnam Forum for
Environmental Journalists was established to address sustainable
development issues and challenges associated with reporting on
At the same time, however, Vietnam faces the excesses of a lax
canon of reporting standards reminiscent of the West's own brand
of "tabloid journalism". For example, the most popular newspaper
in Vietnam is the Cong An Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh, or the Saigon
Police Gazette, published by the police in Ho Chi Minh City. Its
weekly circulation comes to more than 600,000 copies. Newspaper
vendors indicate that it sells out almost immediately. At
US$0.20 a copy, that's no small change for the publisher.
This is in sharp contrast to the party's ideological flagship
newspaper, Nhan Dan, which many vendors choose not to sell
because it brings in so little money. Unlike Nhan Dan, the
Saigon Police Gazette is filled with lurid tales of sex and
violence, of gang crimes and prostitution.
Le Quoc Minh, a veteran Vietnamese journalist, understands the
need to improve standards and has established a Vietnamese
journalism website, www.vietnamjournalism.com, to provide
informational tools for reporters. "I just set up this website
to share all I know on journalism for my colleagues, especially
young reporters, editors and photographers. I don't think the
way we have [been] doing things here is all that professional,"
added Minh in an interview with Asia Times Online.
But with the way things seem to be going, the foreign media will
no longer be the only ones drawing attention to the myriad
challenges facing this developing nation. Intrepid Vietnamese
reporters are bravely reporting on rural poverty, environmental
problems, a fragile health-care system, corruption and
integration into the world market; and they are doing so in a
way that attempts to safeguard their traditional culture in
conjunction with necessary reforms.
One of the most stellar reporting efforts by the Vietnamese
press involved insightful investigative articles on one of its
own: Tran Mai Hanh, former deputy chairman of the Vietnamese
Journalists' Association, who is alleged to have links to the
Vietnamese mafia and has accepted bribes for suppressing
information. Hanh also served as the general director of Voice
of Vietnam radio and was a member of the party's powerful
Central Committee. Vietnam's state-run media is credited with
breaking this corruption scandal two years ago.
A school all their own
Vietnam gatekeepers are
almost universally trained at the Press and Communication
Institute, the first journalism school in Vietnam. About 90% of
the state's media managers have completed their studies at this
institute. The institute has faculties in print media,
broadcasting, Internet and new media, and international
"I am studying for a masters in journalism. Around 300 young
journalists graduate from the institute every year, and in my
opinion, the education quality of this institute is better than
the two other journalism education centers in Vietnam [Hanoi
National University and Ho Chi Minh City University], since the
institute offers experienced professors," Nguyen Thu Hoai from
the Vietnam Journalists Association in Hanoi wrote in an e-mail
interview with Asia Times Online.
Since Vietnam has failed to establish any national standards for
its media curriculum, foreign entities have been encouraged by
the Vietnamese government to offer media training classes in
country. These include Sweden's International Institute for
Further Education of Journalists (Fojo), Lille University in
France, Singapore's School of Communication Studies at Nanyang
Technological University, and Indochina Media Memorial
Foundation - all now plying reporters with short-term intensive
media training classes.
Sweden has supported a training program for journalists since
1994 that includes a radio broadcasting program with interaction
from ordinary citizens, reminiscent of popular talk-radio
programs in the West. This type of media program has sparked
enthusiasm for the widespread belief in a growing role for the
media to enhance dan chu goc, or grassroots democracy.
West Virginia University's Perley Issac Reed School of
Journalism in the United States is now engaged in fundraising to
create a Center for the Study of Emerging Media in Vietnam.
Located in Morgantown, West Virginia, the internationally
focused journalism school has supported training and exchanges
with journalists from Vietnam for several years.
"The center will help Vietnamese journalists and educators build
their understanding of contemporary media and media skills,
learn modern media technology and build a professional network
online," according to Professor Christine Martin, the former
dean of the Perley Issac Reed School of Journalism, and vice
president for Institutional Advancement at West Virginia
All of these media training developments are first steps in the
transformation of Vietnam's media, including the World Bank's
newly funded program in cooperation with the Ho Chi Minh City
University of Social Science and Humanities, for the
establishment of practical media courses titled "Reporting on
"Vietnam is taking steps to ensure the reform of the media and
even recently passed a law granting more freedom to the
individual editors of publishing companies, enabling that person
to make value judgments about news worthiness and accuracy
rather than having each article pass through the party's
ideological censors," stated Augustine Vinh, a Hanoi-based
independent financial consultant to the World Bank.
Despite the country's legacy of war, political constraints and
poverty, Vietnam's media are slowly helping the nation face up
to their challenges in the race toward becoming an active global
competitor and aspirant to the World Trade Organization.
In response to an Asia Times Online question about improvements
in the development of an independent press, Huon Tran from
VietnamNet Bridge said, "I think this development must accompany
the international integration process that Vietnam has long
embarked on, and I myself found quite a very interesting shift
in this view on the country's image building by Vietnamese
James Borton is a freelance journalist and currently is
writing a book on China's media. He can be reached at
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