Freedom of the Press, Vietnamese Style

A report on media activities in 2012, which Deputy Minister of Information and Communication Do Quy Doan delivered at the national conference on the tasks for the press during 2013, clearly stated, “As of March 2013, there are 812 printed media agencies nationwide with 1084 publications. Of these, there are 197 newspapers, including 84 newspapers at national and industrial level, and 113 provincial ones. In the area of electronic media, there are 336 social media networks and 1174 diversed news sites. The whole country has 67 broadcast agencies at national and provincial (local) level; three of these are central (national) agencies, including the Voice of Vietnam, the Vietnam Television, and the Vietnam Digital Television (VTC). The other 64 agencies are local broadcasters providing 172 channels (with 99 television channels and 73 radio ones). In terms of human resources, there are nearly 17,000 professional journalists granted press cards; and the Vietnam Journalists Association has 17,000 members in its network.
"Coffee and tea reserved for NA deputies and secretaries. No service to the press and guards."
Photo: Lê Anh Dũng (VietNamNet)
The language sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Indeed it remains almost the same through years, with only a slight change in statistical figures. The press system in 2012, for example, is described as follows:
Mass media in general and the press in particular in present Vietnam has never attained such a growth in terms of the size, the quantity and the form. As of March 2012, our country has 786 printed media agencies, including 184 newspapers and over 592 magazines, with 1016 publications. Of these media agencies, there are 194 newspapers, including 81 national and 113 local newspapers; there are 592 magazines, including 475 national and 117 local ones; 1 national news agency; 2 national broadcast agencies; 1 industrial television agency; 64 provincial broadcast stations; 47 licensed cable broadcasters; 9 providers of cable TV signals. In the area of electronic meda, the entire nation has 61 electronic newspapers and magazines, 191 social media networks, and over 1000 diversified news sites…”
And below is the 2011 statistics:
As of March 2011, in printed media alone, there are 745 media agencies nationwide with 1003 publications. In broadcast, there are 67 broadcast agencies. Three of these are central (national) agencies, including the Voice of Vietnam, the Vietnam Television and the Vietnam Digital Television. The other 64 agencies are local broadcasters. They provide 200 domestic channels and 67 overseas ones. In the area of electronic media, our country has 46 electronic newspapers and magazines, 287 news sites owned by various media agencies and thousands of news sites owned by the diverse agencies of the Party, the Government, unions, associations, organizations, and enterprises. Moreover, as of March 2011, there are nearly 17,000 citizens granted press cards in our country and more than 5,000 people working as reporters without press cards. Many such reporters and editors have a good command of political awareness and professional knowledge.
The above passage, cited from a statement by the Ministry of Communication and Information of Vietnam, is typical of official reports issued by the Vietnamese government which are characterized by an emphasis on numbers and a deliberate neglect of analysis. The information in the passage is also what the Vietnamese authorities are likely to provide via mainstream media and the network of public opinion shapers when they are asked to present evidence supporting the idea that Vietnam has freedom of the press.   
This may be traced back to a common psychological trait of communists, that is, they are very fond of numbers and quantification. For instance, they consider them to be the strongest evidence of the nation’s economic achievements and social progress. They tend to cite the annual growth in gross domestic products or the average income per capita in Hanoi as from year X. as “undeniable evidence” that Vietnam is doing well in development. In the wartime, for the sake of conciseness in propaganda activities, they even quantified and shortened many terms unrelated to numbers such as “three sides, four conflicts” to describe the world’s political situation, “three preparations” to describe three qualities required from youths and “three responsibilities” to mean the same for women. 
One thing to note, however, is that the Vietnamese government has been using the number of media agencies and reporters as the clearest and the only evidence of freedom of the media in Vietnam. They do not go into details of how the media agencies and reporters work. They also ignore an extremely important aspect of the story, that is: The vast majority of the media agencies are owned and dominated by the state in various forms.
Openly giving secret instructions
A standard feature of communist press such as that of Vietnam is the “guiding role” of the Party’s Propaganda Department. Every week, this agency holds a meeting in Hanoi with the editors-in-chief of all major newspapers, in which it provides feedbacks and rebuke the media for what they have done in the previous week. The same meeting is held in Ho Chi Minh City by the local Propaganda Department and things are the same for other provinces and cities across Vietnam. 
These meetings are euphemized by the Party as “weekly discussions with the media.” In essence, they are meetings in which communist officials sermonize media leaders, trying to mould newspapers into the Party’s lines and thereby shaping public opinions. 
The Party must be well aware that this is an unlawful measure which runs counter to all journalism standards of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality and fairness. So on one hand, it orders the editors-in-chief to convey the Party’s editorial directions to journalists at home; on the other hand, it wants the press to keep extremely secret the fact that the Party maintains media control with such weekly meetings.
The minutes of the press guiding meeting of March 29, 2011 was leaked to the blogosphere with instructions such as “don’t report on movie actress Hong Anh running for national assembly election”, “don’t mention the jurist doctorate of Cu Huy Ha Vu in his trial” (Vu is a prominent legal activist who was subsequently sentenced 7 years in prison for conducting propaganda against the state), “don’t report the vessel sinking in Ha Long so as not to badly influence the nation’s tourism industry”, “don’t cover issues related to atomic energy stations in Vietnam”, etc. The leader of the media agency whose name and signature appeared on the minutes, Vu Quang Huy, and some concerned staffs were deadly anxious about being imputed. 
Just prior to the trial of Cu Huy Ha Vu, journalists covering legal affairs for major newspapers all received a printed notice without sender’s name or title or seal, instructing the media, in reporting the trial, to praise the impartiality of the judges and the just sentence, “not to give commentaries or in-depth analyses”, “not to address the accused as J.D. as the accused can take advantage of his title”, etc. 
In another press guiding meeting last December, Mr. Nguyen The Ky, the Vice Director of the Central Department of Propaganda, rebuked the press for having reported that Chinese vessels cut the seismic cables of a Vietnamese oil exploration ship. He said the Chinese vessels just “unintentionally caused the cables to be broken” rather than “deliberately sabotaged them”. (In fact experts, for eg. some working for Petro Vietnam, insisted that China must not have done anything unintentionally.) Ky’s preach was wired and posted to web, and he suffered from a public outcry online. Vietnamese BBC, an oversea media agency, later had an interview with Ky, where he explained that he only meant to “discuss” this matter with the press. However, he could not mould bloggers into thinking that the Party puts national interest above their comradeship with the Chinese communist party or that the Party leaves the press independent. Both Ky and the Propaganda Department were annoyed with the leakage of “guidance and propaganda information”. Arguably in the next meeting, they were extra vigilant over the risk of being recorded, and went short of searching every attendant for recording devices.
SMS and phone instructions
The press, be noticed that tomorrow, July 1, is the Chinese Communist Party’s Establishment Day. Reporting on anti-China protests and territorial disputes between Vietnam and China is strictly prohibited.” This text message of June 30, 2012, is just one of numerous SMS instructions from media control agencies to leaders of major media agencies. 
In addition to text messages, phone calls and oral instructions have also been used to order the press “not to report this incidence”, “not to highlight that case”, “to restrict covering these topics”, etc. This proves to be a wise technique of controlling the media for its being effective and subtle, leaving no written form, signature or seal. As there’s not any evidence left of the “guidance” imposed upon the press, “hostile forces” simply cannot allege that freedom of the press in Vietnam is restricted – all what they say is slanderous.

More than anyone else, the Communist Party – herein represented by the propagandists and public security machinery – is aware of the power of secrecy. Transparency only means self-defamation and suicide. Thereby arises a risk which the Party keeps hostile to and vigilant against, that is the sympathy between mainstream media and unofficial media, or the leakage of information from the “right side” to the “left side” press (see note), in the words of former Minister of Information and Communication Le Doan Hop.

Note: Le Doan Hop, in his office tenure, said in an interview given to the Sai Gon Giai Phong on August 3, 2007, “You the press are absolutely free if you keep to the right side of the road, and we are making efforts to keep you, comrades, on the right side.” Possibly from that time on, Hop’s concepts of “right side” and “left side” in media gave rise to a famous metaphor, “right side press” to mean state-owned newspapers as opposed to “left side press” to mean “reactionary”, out-of-state-control blogs.


As written in the first part, “more than anyone else, the Communist Party – herein represented by the propagandists and public security machinery – is aware of the power of secrecy. Transparency only means self-defamation and suicide.” Therefore it is crucial to ensure secrecy in a variety of areas, ranging from work secret to national security. This can be done via the implementation of a basic principle, that is “to do good in propaganda of the communist ideology” and to keep the press under tight surveillance.
A police state: Police standing outside the trial of legal activist Cu Huy Ha Vu, April 2011. 
(source unknown)

With the advent of the Internet and especially social media networks, however, the task becomes more difficult. Given such context, the propaganda and public security machinery must deal with controlling official media and, at the same time, suppressing the unofficial one, ie. the Internet media.

Press cards

A subtle measure taken by the Party to control the media in the name of “media management” is to maintain the so-called “press card” (not press badges which are issued to journalists covering a specific event). A Vietnamese press card is granted by the Ministry of Information and Communication to a reporter only when he/she meets a set of requirements imposed by a circular titled 07/2007/TT-BVHTT, including “not to be rebuked in the previous 12 months” and “to be recommended by the media agency, the line ministry, the Department of Culture and Information and the Association of the Press.” All the requirements are hard to meet, especially for reporters who tend to criticize the Party.

In particular, the requirement that the reporter must be “recommended by the media agency, the line ministry, the Department of Culture and Information and the Association of the Press” manifests the vague boundary between the state sector and civil society. The press per se is part of the realm of civil society, and the media agency is not an agency performing official duties. 

Accordingly, the government is not entitled to grant press cards to identify those who work in media area; in other words, it cannot make invention in an area beyond its jurisdiction. However, the government in reality keeps exercising this authority, even prescribes that “The media operating within the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is the essential means of providing public information in relation to social life; is the mouth piece of Party organizations, State bodies and social organizations, and a forum for the people” (Article 1 on role and function of the media, Vietnam’s Law on Media, 1999) and the media must “disseminate, publicize and contribute to the establishment and protection of the strategies and policies of the Party, the laws of the State, and the achievements of the country and the world in accordance with the guiding principles and aims of media organizations; to contribute to political stability” (Article 6 on the responsibilities and rights of the media).

As a result, a great many journalists are subject to the direction of the machinery of government whose capacity of communication is decidedly inferior to theirs.

“Free journalist” = reactionary element

Some may say press card itself is no more than a card, thus it is of not much significance. However, press cards are very important. A journalist is someone “who is granted a press card” in law as well as in social perception. Those without press cards are not recognized as journalists. Consequently, they will evidently be barred from any event that the organizers, the police, and the authorities, dislike the press to attend. “Press card bearing” is often referred to as one condition for journalists who want to attend state-organized, high level meetings. With this requirement, the organizers succeed in blocking hundreds of reporters and, of course, bloggers.

More than anyone else, the police insist that only those granted with press cards are recognized as journalists and that those without press cards are just “self-proclaimed” reporters or freelance writers who must not be given access to “authorized information”. On October 30th 2012, Catholic blogger Huyền Trang was detained and interrogated for nearly one day in a Ho Chi Minh City police station. When she told the police that she worked as a reporter for Redemptorist News, an online Catholic news service, they shouted at her, “Who recognized you? Where is your press card? You all are a band of reactionary parasites!” 

In 2011 and 2012 alone, dozens of journalists reported being harassed or even assaulted by the police, ruffians and even civilians. However, their denunciations and complaints simply went ignored because they were not “journalists performing duties” in the eyes of the authorities.

Being unrecognized may cause much more trouble to bloggers because they do not receive protection. Dieu Cay and Ta Phong Tan, the two members of the Free Journalist Club, were severely persecuted when they came to hot spots to report for their personal blog. Both were given harsh sentences in the end: 12 years of imprisonment for Dieu Cay and 10 years for Ta Phong Tan.

On the one hand, the Party and the state tightly control official media. On the other hand, they keep denying the existence of “citizen journalists”.

Both the mainstream media and the blogosphere heard of Truong Duy Nhat, who quit his journalistic career to become a blogger. He is now the owner of the blog “A Different Viewpoint”. Following his arrest on May 26, 2013, journalist Duc Hien (aka. Bo Cu Hung) commented on his FB page, “the thing is that a journalist must be able to access information. If he or she lacks the ability or opportunity to access information, his or her different viewpoint will be either insults, or libels, or talking along the same line as someone else…

Ironically while political bloggers harshly criticized Hien, he was right from the viewpoint of the authorities. The ability and opportunity to access information remain a huge difference between a journalist and a blogger, or a state-recognized journalist and an independent (free) one. There is no way for a blogger to attend major social or political state-organized events and gatherings, international and national conferences, or to interview high ranking officials of the Party and the government.  

 The authorities are fully aware that they must employ this disadvantage of the bloggers to keep them in the disadvantageous position to the press. At the same time, they deliberately create an invisible war between “right side” and “left side” media to curb any form of cooperation between state-owned and citizen journalists.
In 2012, there were 71 journalists killed worldwide. Syria became the deadliest place for the press with 29 journalists murdered. (1) Apart from two hot spots including Syria and the occupied Palestinian territory, journalists were killed mostly in Africa, Latin America and South Asia. In the Southeast Asia region, Cambodia and the Philippines each contributed one case.
The press is totally free to take photos of the accused 
during a trial against a former beauty queen 
under charge with procuring prostitute. Ảnh: Thuận Thắng (
In Vietnam, on the contrary, no journalist has been murdered for their professional work. One exception which could be construed as attempted murder was the acid assault against journalist Tran Quang Thanh on July 4, 1991, leaving him disfigured and handicapped. Days before the attack he had received death threats from an anonymous gang, about which he told the Nguoi Viet in 2011, “only the police knew and revealed to the gang that I was the informant.” Notably no local newspaper reported anything about his story, which subsequently fell into oblivion.
Despite this attack, Vietnam was not featured in the list of deadliest countries to be a journalist. In other words, Vietnam does not control the media by killing journalists. This may tempt western observers, when discussing free media, to think that no matter what has been said and done, Vietnam still has a free press, with its journalists protected in a safe environment.
Ironically, the good news also implies another aspect worth considering. That is to say, armed conflict and civil war excluded, the fact that journalists get killed in some countries indicates that those countries have independent media with investigative and anti-corruption journalism. Meanwhile in Vietnam, there has not yet any murder of journalist. This may be explained by the fact that the press in Vietnam is under strict state control; the press is not at all independent and investigative, there is nothing close to anti-corruption journalism. Put simply, Vietnamese journalists in general are not allowed to do work that is worth being killed for. Too obedient to be killed, they are not influential enough.
A simmering Southeast Asian Sea
One of the leading opposition blogs in Vietnam, Ba Sam, on July 3 presented its finding on an apparently already-known topic in the Vietnamese media, “In our beautiful socialist country, there are two places kept as secret and inaccessible as a forbidden palace and they are the meeting room of the Central Committee of the Communist Party/ the Politburo and the prisons.”
True. Accordingly, every macro issue and policy that can challenge the legitimacy of the regime, or, to be exact, the survival of the Vietnamese Communist Party, are kept secret and/or dealt with on a case-to-case basis. One such issue is Vietnam’s policy toward China, part of which is land and maritime sovereignty disputes between the two nations. (2)
The press will never find any statement in written form about the policy of the VCP toward its Chinese counterpart. Nor will they find any specific document clearly stating the direction of media controlling in this area. So the public just can guess and spread rumors that the China-Vietnam relations is perhaps a highly sensitive issue. This sensitivity was demonstrated by many of the arrests of and sanctions against bloggers and journalists between 2007 and 2013 involved Chinese elements.

That is not to mention hundreds of private phone calls and text messages to single media agencies, reporters, and editors. They were made to instruct and to “guide” the press during the pre-publishing process, and to give warnings and complaints after that.
Ironically, any journalist can be confident that the Vietnam-China relations is actually a topic of much public concern.
Supply fails to meet demand
Economists believe that state intervention is always among the important factors that distort market information and manipulate market prices. In the realm of communication and mass media, typically and particularly in covering the South China Sea dispute, when the supply and demand for information are not balanced, the following things happen:  

The tactics they adopt to court audience are quite simple: shocking titles, anecdotes, unverifiable and misleading information are all accepted. It is especially advisable to interview those with a strong anti-China mind, even nationalists. The result is poor journalistic works, as there remains to be, and, most importantly, more excuses for the government to hold its grip on the press, especially in relation to “propaganda activities” about the South China Sea issue.
Don’t twist our mind!
A fallacy usually committed by the VCP’s “rumormongers” (3), or public opinion shapers, is that “if one really cares about something, one will surely try to learn about it, thus become informed.” That is to say, if one is concerned enough about the Vietnam-China relations, one must try to learn about it oneself. As a result, transparency – or the state obligation of keeping the citizens informed of public policy – has become a mind game for the people, including the press.
Furthermore, with the Vietnamese style of press freedom, there are numerous sources that are inaccessible even to mainstream media, let alone citizen journalists.
“Since December 2006 when comrade Hu Jintao visited Vietnam to attend the APEC Summit until now (2011), there has not been any high-level Chinese delegation coming to visit Vietnam despite the many visits of ours to our friend (China – note mine). Our friend usually requests our Politburo members, particularly General Secretary and President, to pay official visit to her, while none of our comrades has not made any visit to us, saying they were all too busy. This inevitably causes us to feel uneasy. Our friend said she is busy and has not visited us for a long time, but at the same time, she went to other countries in the region, including even Laos and Cambodia…”
Can any blogger ever attain such information?
(1) Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 2012.
(2) The maritime sovereignty dispute between Vietnam and China has loomed over all suppressive acts by the Vietnamese government against their people in recent years: the Vietnamese Communist Party appears to face a dilemma of either taking the side of their nationalist citizens or maintaining the “comradeship” with their Chinese counterpart. At times they seem to appease the assertive China even when this means an attack on media freedom: dozens of anti-China bloggers and street protestors have been arrested in recent years.
(3) On January 9, 2013, Head of the Hanoi Party Committee’s Propaganda Department, Ho Quang Loi, in a meeting to review the press’ activities in 2012, said Hanoi must be the “focal site of reactionaries” during the year. He said the propaganda measurements were that the Department had set up a force of 900 “rumormongers” (ie. those who make up rumors) across the city “to fully exploit the power of propagandists.” At the same time, the City’s press, “in obedience to the orders from the superiors in dealing with sensitive cases”, has founded teams of “button-pressing, rapid response journalists”. 
“Rumormongers” and “rapid response journalists” have since become popular terms to mean those who are paid by the Party to shape public opinions online. The equivalent English word for them is “cyber troops” or “Internet trolls.”

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