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Jan 12, 2005, Asia Times




Vietnam makes a start on reform

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 these matters.

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 relations.

"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 University.

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 Development Issues".

"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 leaders."

James Borton is a freelance journalist and currently is writing a book on China's media. He can be reached at asiareview@yahoo.com.

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