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Journalism in Vietnam : walking the tightrope between communism and capitalism

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Media and journalism in Vietnam are facing a challenge when it comes to publishing stories about the government. On the one hand, the single-party government has absolute power to control the news outlets’ publications. On the other hand, the media still has to struggle to find a way to make money and survive.

In early May, a reporter at a state news outlet based in Hanoi, Thuỷ, was informed by her section head that high-ranking Vietnamese officials were making an official visit to several European countries.

“It means that for diplomatic reasons, all articles that are inclined to expose problems of those countries must be delayed or even deleted if already published,” said Thuỷ.

Such information from her section head is also a gentle reminder for her to write articles that promote diplomatic relations between Vietnam and European countries. Thuỷ referred to such an approach of journalism in Vietnam as “writing according to season”.

Staff members of state-affiliated outlets have to pay attention to Party events to write articles. State-affiliated that write lacklustre or insufficient information about the government’s and party’s activities and important events will be criticised by the Communist Party of Vietnam.

The issue with journalism in Vietnam is that the media are controlled by a single party. Most of the media in Vietnam are state-affiliated media. For example, the widely read Dân trí is under the Ministry of Labor, Invalids, and Social Affairs; VNexpress is under the Ministry of Science and Technology; Vietnamnet is under the Ministry of Information and Communications.

The media outlets have to write and promote several important events. On the Party’s founding day (3 February), media outlets have to publish news that praises the party’s achievements in fighting foreign aggressors and building a fast-developing socialist country. On Ho Chi Minh’s birthday (19 May) every year, they have to write dedicated articles for the founder of the Communist Party of Indochina (now the Communist Party of Vietnam) and the first President of Northern Vietnam.

Thuỷ, who has been working for the news outlet for over a year, is unhappy with this rule. Her media will likely delay some of Thuỷ’s articles further, which will impact impacting her monthly key performance indicator (KPI) and reduce her payments. In April, some of her articles on education were postponed to make space for articles on the history of Vietnam on National Unification Day (30 April), also known as the Fall of Saigon Day. 

As written on her contract, her basic salary is VND 6 million or 256 USD/month. She will also receive an additional income for each published article each month above her quota of 20. However, in practice, Thuỷ will still not receive her full basic salary if she doesn’t publish at least 20 types or genres of articles per month.

“I barely meet the monthly quota,” Thuỷ says.

Due to that system, the competition among journalists in her outlet regularly gives them anxieties. Many reporters compete to publish their articles and meet a certain quota to receive their full monthly payment.

One of her colleagues in other state-affiliated outlets, who are also interviewed for this article, revealed the same experience holds true across the landscape of journalism in Vietnam: working in the politicised yet at the same time increasingly commercialised mediascape. 

It is not a coincidence that Vietnamese outlets speak the same voice: touting the party-to-party relations between Vietnam and China, tarnishing TikTok before its inspection in Vietnam, etc.

Despite being often ranked as one of the countries with the lowest levels of press freedom, the nuances of journalism in Vietnam are more complex and intriguing than commonly perceived.

No Independent Journalism in Vietnam

An independent journalist who has experience working in the state and private sector, Ngô Bá Nha, says in her 2016 book Sống tốt với nghề báo (Living Well with Journalism) that there is no private journalism in Vietnam. While one does not need to be a Communist Party member to work as a journalist in a state outlet, they have to be a member of the party and have a level of mastery of Marxist-Leninist political theory through political training classes at state agencies to get a promotion for a leadership position in state-affiliated media outlets. Therefore, most of those working in leadership positions are members of the Communist Party.

Financially speaking, some media outlets in Vietnam are partly independent. According to the Ministry of Information and Communications, there are currently three media forms: fully or partially funded by the State budget, partially funded by their supervising agencies and managing their own finances, and completely financially autonomous. 

Currently, only 300 out of 857 media agencies are financially independent. While most Party newspapers are supported by the State budget, newspapers from ministries, departments, and organisations, including that of Thuỷ, mostly have to manage their finances and continue to face many difficulties. The state’s budget is insufficient to cover the media’s operations.

Journalists like Thuỷ must muddle through Communist censorship and commercial pressures to survive. There is no law or ethical rules for journalists in Vietnam to do their work. But they do have to be careful about their publication, ensure that it’s still safe to receive funding from advertisements or investors, and avoid fines.

Based on Reporters Without Borders (RSF)’s data, at least 42 independent journalists are in prison today. Meanwhile, journalists from mainstream media, whether state-affiliated or fully private, are doing self-censorship internally or have an Editor-in-Chief who is also responsible for censoring the content.

The official designation of the mainstream media is revolutionary press, named as such because it was born primarily for revolutionary propaganda. The first revolutionary press, Thanh Niên (Youth), was established on 21 June 1925 by Hồ Chí Minh, four years before the Founding of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV).

According to the National Press Development and Management Planning Project until 2025, state-owned outlets must be supervised by a state agency. Meanwhile, private outlets are not authorised to produce news on their own. They have to republish the content of state-owned outlets. 

The term Báo chính thống or official press refers to outlets belonging to state agencies. Meanwhile, the outlets that belong to private companies are called trang đưa tin or republishing outlets.  While both employ reporters, only those working for the official press are issued press passes. In reality, reporters from the state-affiliated media have better resources to seek informants.

According to Huệ, an editor from a state-owned outlet with a strong emphasis on Party news, private outlets publish their own reporting on their website. However, they still have to submit to and republish from a state-affiliated press outlet to their websites to comply with Article 3 of the 2016 Law on Press, which says,

“The press in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is an essential medium of communication for social life; is the voice of Party and state agencies, socio-political organisations, socio-politico-professional, social organisations, and socio-professional organisations; and is a forum of the People.”

Hương, a reporter based in Saigon working for a private outlet, found little difference between her work and that of her state-affiliated colleagues until the pandemic hit. During the full lockdown in Saigon, which was strictly enforced, only professionals with permits to travel for work (giấy đi đường) issued by their affiliations were allowed on the roads. Despite having a permit, Hương was unable to leave her home as the police did not authorise her to do so. 

“I introduced myself as a reporter, but the traffic police did not believe me because I did not have a state-issued press pass,” Hương recounts.

Communist Censorship

Consensus, not critical thinking, is encouraged. On January 15, at the conference to deploy the tasks for 2019 of the Ministry of Information and Communications, former Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc said, “Emphasis should be made on the need for the press to promote consensus and build social trust so that the press can contribute more strongly to the development of the country.”

According to an anonymous editor working for a ministry-affiliated outlet, the Central Propaganda and Training Commission of the Communist Party—the ultimate editor of all media outlets—not only censors what is to be written but also prescribes what is going to be published at state-funded outlets. They inform Editors-in-Chief—who are also promoted on political allegiance rather than ability—whether the media have to be silent, soft, or strong on any particular issues.

Dr Nguyễn Thu Giang from the University of Queensland, Australia, explains that media practitioners are “trapped between their profit-making duty and their political obligations”.

“Top-down surveillance, after all, is relatively stable and in many ways predictable,” writes Dr Nguyễn. 

“The market, on the contrary, is volatile and getting more competitive each year,” she continues. 

Cương is a columnist working at an outlet based in Ho Chi Minh City. Yet, the directing team is in Hanoi. He says that there are weekly and mandatory meetings in Hanoi between the Central Propaganda and Education Commission and leaders of all media institutions. In those meetings, the Central Propaganda and Education Commission prescribes the content to the media.

A few months ago, many outlets concurrently reported Ke Huy Quan as a Vietnamese American winner of an Oscar for his performance in Everything Everywhere All at Once. However, as he presented himself as a boat person who fled from the Communist regime upon the fall of Saigon in 1975 and caused heated debates on social media, most media in Vietnam chose to remove his Vietnamese origin from the news. It happened based on the request of CPV.

The censorship can be political or personal. “Sometimes, it might be what ‘the above’ told us. Sometimes, it might be just the editor’s personal preference,” says Hương.

As Ngô Bá Nha writes in her book, “Sometimes, there are depressing and embittering moments when our articles are not allowed to be published at the last minute: the affiliated institutions do not like the sensitive content, journalists are not allowed to bad mouth a friend of your editor, the content is harmful to the PR partners or clients.”

New Naratif tried to contact Central Propaganda and Education Commission’s official email, but the email is not active.

Capitalistic Influences in the Landscape of Journalism in Vietnam

Before 1986, the Vietnamese press depended entirely on state subsidies. The economic reform in 1986, known as Đổi Mới (“Renovation”), impacted several sectors in Vietnam, including media outlets. It came with the renovation policy, which set the Vietnamese press to the market.

As outlined in the National Press Development and Management Planning Project until 2025, official media outlets or state-affiliated outlets are required to become financially independent.  As a result, many media outlets have had to seek alternative methods to generate revenue and make up for the financial subsidies they have lost from the government.

On one hand, the competition within journalism in Vietnam is high. On the other hand, money is tight for journalists and the media. According to all informants for these articles, it is common for editors and journalists to attend events for envelopes.

Thuỷ says that her articles were often not paid for because there were fewer than 1,000 views. “Punitive policies are strictly enforced by editors”, says Thuỷ.

It is now a public secret that the media in Vietnam relies on its relationship with business people for funding, either through direct sponsorship or through more concealed forms of public relations.

Dr Nguyễn Thu Giang remarks, “Businesspeople increasingly have influence over the media, many times acting as hidden censors of nonpolitical content. Market-based power relies on an intricate and flexible network of financial incentives, collaborative partnership, informal friendship, and political investment.”

Thuỷ was willing to report the wrongdoing of a state-owned enterprise, only to be rejected by her supervisor because it was “risky”.

Ngô Bá Nha writes that many companies pay a lot of money for journalists to attend their events in exchange for good-quality PR articles. Many people pretend to be journalists to be paid, making journalists badly reputed. 

Another journalist who used to work at a small media outlet, Anh, decided to resign after she saw how her outlet’s willingness to do anything to make money. 

Anh explains that her media outlet is open to receiving complaints from readers about any issues. After receiving the complaints, her media usually checked which companies the readers mentioned. Then they used the information they got from the readers to blackmail the companies. Anh’s media would negotiate with the companies and promise not to investigate or publish anything related to the companies in exchange for money.

The main source of income of the outlet is to make arrangements with wrongdoers.”

Between 2019 and 2020, her media signed a contract with a beverage company to discredit its rival. The beverage company was competing for influence in a large-scale government project. The arrangement “went wrong” after the beverage company’s rival sued the media outlets for disseminating disinformation and defaming a large company.

Anh’s colleagues, who had been instructed by the Editor-in-Chief (who is also a Communist Party member) to produce those stories, were the ones who were brought to court. Meanwhile, the Editor-in-Chief emerged unscathed.

“I think of giving up my career as a journalist”, says Anh.

By Hướng Thiện – New Narratif – August 16, 2023 

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