Free Enterprise but Not Freedom of the Press: In Vietnam, Self-Censorship and Government Scrutiny Muffle Journalists. (International Journalism).(Column)

By Lamb, David | Nieman Reports, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview
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Free Enterprise but Not Freedom of the Press: In Vietnam, Self-Censorship and Government Scrutiny Muffle Journalists. (International Journalism).(Column)


Lamb, David, Nieman Reports


I fell into a pleasing routine during my four years in Hanoi. Like a million or so Vietnamese, I'd get on my bike early each morning and head downtown through the capital's congested streets. A couple of blocks from my office, I'd stop at Au Lac Cafe and take a seat on the patio. A young waiter named Dia would bring me a cup of Vietnamese coffee and a copy of the English-language Vietnam News. It was a quick read, devoted largely to extolling the virtues of the Communist Party. But every now and then, I'd find something that surprised me--an article on official corruption or one on slumping exports, the sluggish pace of economic reform or the widespread use of drugs.

No one was going to confuse the Vietnam News with The Times of London. The news media remain an arm of government in Vietnam, and the nation's 80 million people--whose literacy rate is a remarkably high 91 percent--clearly are only told what the Politburo wants them to know. Still, the press in Vietnam is freer than it was a decade ago. Like the country itself, it is in transition, moving with timid steps toward a free-market economy and perhaps, farther down the road, the freedom of expression that Vietnam's constitution says is every citizen's right.

Despite widespread self-censorship and the omnipresent shadow of Big Brother, the country's 7,000 journalists routinely report these days on issues ranging from smuggling to prostitution. Granted, these are subjects sanctioned for discussion by Hanoi, but in a country where the government controls all publications and the Party's Commission for Culture and Ideology meets every Tuesday to decide what issues people will be told about in the week ahead, such coverage would have been unimaginable in the dark years of the early post-war period.

"There is no question we have more freedom today," said Nguyen Duc Tuan, an editor at Lao Dong (Labor), which has 80,000 daily readers and sells for the equivalent of 12 cents. "In the old days, we basically had no news and papers weren't much more than crude mimeographed Party newsletters. Now, reporters like to see how far they can push and still get their stories published."

The transformation of Vietnam's press began in the mid-1980's, when famine threatened the country and the economy was in a tailspin. Reluctantly, the leadership followed China's lead and started moving away from rigid state control of every aspect of life to embrace free enterprise. Subsidies that had kept newspapers in business were dropped, and suddenly editors had to compete for advertising and readers if they wanted to survive.

Editors (most of whom are Party members) became responsible for the content of their publications. Business managers started harping about the need to turn a profit. Newspaper layouts got brighter, content livelier. Readership soared. So did the number of newspapers and magazines--from just a handful in the 1970's to more than 370 today. Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) alone now has 35 newspapers and periodicals; Hanoi has 10. They range from old-fashioned mouthpieces like Nhan Dan (the People) to dailies like Tien Thong (Pioneer), which attracts younger readers with a mix of sports, culture, crime and national news. Additionally, foreign publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Time and Newsweek are now readily available in Vietnam's two major cities.

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