Cablegate: Vietnam: Have Money? Get Espn (and Cnn)!

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E.O. 12958: NA
SUBJECT: VIETNAM: Have Money? Get ESPN (and CNN)!

1. Summary: Although the Vietnamese government (GVN)
regulates access to foreign television, particularly news
channels, enforcement of restrictions is limited and many
Vietnamese citizens have access to CNN and other foreign
channels. High-level CPV and GVN officials, as well as
foreigners are permitted satellite receivers. Cable TV
service including a number of foreign channels has been
available to the public in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Hai
Phong since June 2002, while another, more limited, service
has been available from 1995. By regulation, access to CNN
and some other foreign channels, is limited to senior
officials, press offices, think tank staff and foreigners,
but in practice, cable service providers are quite flexible
because they are trying to compete with the nearly
uncontrollable illegal use of satellite receivers. GVN
officials admit lax enforcement of foreign TV access
restrictions and the GVN appears to tacitly recognize that,
as far as foreign television broadcasts go, the genie is out
of the bottle. That said, the high cost of access and the
language barrier mean that very few Vietnamese actually
watch CNN or other foreign news. End Summary.

The Official Line and Regulations

2. According to Dao Duy Quat, Vice Chairman of the CPV's
Commission for Ideological and Cultural Affairs, the CPV's
position is that all foreign news items must be edited
before viewing, even by the selected group of GVN and CPV
officials permitted to see foreign broadcasts. He
acknowledged no discrepancy between this policy and reality.
According to a June 18, 2002 Prime Ministerial decision
governing the installation and use of satellite receivers, a
select group of CPV and GVN officials may have satellite
receivers installed in their homes and offices for direct
access to foreign channels. This group includes officials
at and above the vice minister or vice chairman rank, top
provincial-level officials and certain national security
related officials. Also, daily newspapers, major television
and radio stations, the state news agency, foreign relations
journals based in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and foreigners
may have direct satellite access to foreign channels.

3. According to the June 2002 decision, only designated
State companies may purchase and install Television Receiver
Only (TVRO) equipment and provide cable, or "pay" TV
service. The decision restricts access to foreign channels
through pay TV to the group permitted satellite dishes,
provincial-level press offices, and think tank staff with a
demonstrated "need to study" what might be on foreign
channels. Current regulations require that programs on
"Western" channels, excluding music and sports channels,
need to be "edited"; however, in reality, pay service
providers do not do any editing, claimed a Vietnam Central
Television (VCTV) official.


4. There is some censorship of foreign programming. VCTV
also rebroadcasts some CNN programming as part of its
regular, non-fee service. However, from our experience,
VCTV does edit sensitive portions of their CNN rebroadcast,
which is voiced over in Vietnamese so that the original
English is mostly unintelligible. Service interruptions or
signal interference on these channels are not uncommon, but
it is unclear how many of these events are due to censorship
and how many are due to technical problems. The only
censorship the GVN has acknowledged recently was of Star
World's broadcast of "Apocalypse Now Redux," although this
did not affect satellite service. The rationale for this
decision is difficult to explain because other movies
depicting the Vietnam War such as "Missing in Action" and
"Platoon Leader" are not censored.

Domestic Pay TV Services

5. Senior officials from VCTV's Cable TV Service confirmed
to Emboff that pay TV service, via cable, began in June
2002, after the Prime Minister's decree. One VCTV official
noted that for several months after the decree took effect,
service providers strictly followed access rules. However
providers have become more and more flexible, due to
business reasons, he claimed. In order to subscribe, one
completes an application form including contact and
employment information. Installation in Hanoi costs VND
638,000 (roughly $42.50), while a monthly fee of VND 30,000
(less than $2) is charged for access to five local channels
and nine other foreign channels, excluding CNN and BBC. For
access to those copyrighted channels, subscribers pay VND
1,700,000 (some $113) for a decoder, and additional monthly
fee of VND 30,000 (less than $2). Monthly service charges
in Ho Chi Minh City are much higher, running at around VND
350,000 (about $23). Basic Installation in Ho Chi Minh City
is also more expensive, VND 750,000 (about $50).

6. A cable TV service director admitted that illegally
imported satellite receivers have been available in the
market for several years now. Using this equipment,
subscribers to a Thai satellite television service receive
access to forty foreign channels at a cost of $300 annually.
The equipment itself costs about $600, and "quite a number
of rich households" have chosen to have it installed, he
added. Foreign television programming can be seen in
entertainment establishments throughout Vietnam, with sports
and music channels appearing to be by far the most popular.
Indeed the June 2002 decree coincided with an upsurge in the
sale of illegal satellite dishes and the World Cup. Small
satellite dishes can be found even in remote areas. A GVN
campaign to confiscate and prohibit the sale of illegal
satellite dishes in August 2002 quickly fizzled; because,
according to some commentators, it was an impossible task.

7. Also according to a pay television service official, the
Multi-point Multi-channel Distribution System (MMDS) TV
service has been available in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City
since 1995, first as part of a technical experimental
project. During the 1995-1998 period, with imported Chinese
antennas costing about $80 each, one could receive a number
of foreign channels rebroadcast by VCTV including CNN, TV5,
MTV, and Cartoon Network. In 1998, it was officially
launched as a pay service requiring a decoder box. It is
subject to restrictions similar to those on cable service,
but has not caught on commercially. MMDS is also available
in the southern provinces of Binh Duong, Dong Nai, Long An,
and Vung Tau. Installation costs VND 1,700,000 ($113) and
monthly fees for packages of foreign range from VND 45,000
to VND 500,000 ($3 to $33).

8. While Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City residents may subscribe
to the heavily advertised cable TV service, Hanoi has a
cheaper alternative, at least for the time being. Hanoi
Television Service is now quietly selling and installing so-
called "set-top-boxes" for those who could afford to pay VND
3,000,000 (less than $200). A set-top-box, or a "digital
head", as Hanoians are calling it, allows access to ten
foreign channels, including CNN, without any additional
charges. There are currently no service charges because the
service is still in an experimental phase run by a VCTV
subsidiary. Officials from VCTV Cable Television Service
asserted that buyers of those expensive "digital heads" are
being cheated. "Hanoi Television is just trying to sell as
many set-top-boxes as possible, despite their awareness that
the experimental project could be over by they end of the
year (2003), and fees will be charged from then on,"
asserted a VCTV Cable Service director.

Who Sees Foreign TV?

9. According to experts from VCTV Cable Television Service,
most of their customers are Vietnamese workers at foreign
Embassies, international missions and foreign businesses, as
well as various GVN employees. One television official
claimed that "Most people would find those news items (on
CNN) quite boring, except for employees of foreign
organizations that know English." Other TV officials
suggested that many people in Hanoi who do not meet the
requirements set by the June 2002 decree receive cable and
MMDS TV service. According to one source, there are about
25,000 cable subscribers in and around Ho Chi Minh City.

10. VCTV's Cable Television Service Director in Hanoi
explained the gap between regulations and reality on access
to foreign television channels as follows: "There are always
certain laws to govern certain things. We have traffic laws
in place, but people are still violating them. We need to
be flexible for business reasons." Ministry of Culture and
Information officials insisted that they follow and enforce
regulations on access and "editing" (or censorship), but
admitted that there are many people with satellite dishes
who should not have them. They refused to state whether
enforcing the regulations was not feasible or simply not a


11. The lax enforcement of television access restrictions
by GVN regulators appears to signal that they realize there
is little they can do to block the use of satellite dishes.
Likewise, the "flexible" approach of (GVN controlled) cable
service providers is a sign that they are attempting to
compete with illegal satellite receivers. Especially in
Hanoi, short-lived attempts to enforce regulations have had
little effect and it seems the GVN has accepted that there
is little it can do to directly control access to foreign
television. However, the cost of both pay and satellite TV
service is well beyond the means of the vast majority of
Vietnam's citizens. Moreover, relatively few Vietnamese
find CNN or BBC interesting or even comprehensible.
Entertainment, especially sports, is king of foreign TV
programming in Vietnam. Also, although hardly scientific,
Mission's impression is that it is much easier for
Vietnamese citizen to obtain access to foreign TV news
channels in Hanoi than in Ho Chi Minh City.

© Scoop Media

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