Cablegate: Shifting Press Paradigm in Southern Vietnam

DE RUEHHM #1136/01 3130837
P 090837Z NOV 07





E.O. 12958: N/A


HO CHI MIN 00001136 001.2 OF 003

1. (SBU) Summary: While Vietnam remains far from achieving true
freedom of the press, the paradigm is starting to shift across
southern Vietnam. Already, the old "total control model" in
which the Government of Vietnam (GVN) essentially dictated what
papers should publish has given way to a "censorship model" in
which the GVN generally limits itself to telling the press what
not to publish. Newspapers routinely push the envelope by
publishing right up to (if not over) the limits laid down by
censors. Despite continued tensions between the GVN and the
media and even occasional acts of retribution against media
outlets and individuals who publish too freely, the long-term
trend remains positive. Motivated by a combination of
journalistic zeal and a desire to boost revenues by attracting
readers, more and more media outlets are showing a willingness
to tackle controversial topics and test the limits of
censorship. Despite continuing to censor, the GVN itself -- or
at least a number of its most senior officials -- is actually
facilitating increased press freedom by being more willing to
discuss controversial topics such as corruption, poor public
services and health publicly. In addition, some officials have
publicly lauded the very same press outlets that have been
criticized by other parts of the GVN. The resulting mixed
message makes it clear that censors are no longer omnipotent and
media outlets are increasingly learning how to bend the rules
without consequences. End Summary.

2. (SBU) Little more than a year ago, reading Saigon Giai Phong
(Saigon Liberation -- the official paper of the Communist Party
of Ho Chi Minh City)(SGP) was like reading a 1970's vintage
issue of Pravda, albeit in Vietnamese rather than Russian. The
same bombast and toadyism permeated pages filled with articles
about the great advances made by heroic leaders to achieve lofty
goals for the betterment of the people -- all with no details.
While articles of that nature still appear in SGP, most of the
paper is filled with straightforward news about current
economic, social, health and other mainstream issues found in
most American papers. Even the front page looks remarkably like
any American newspaper, with prominent stories on corruption
scandals and tirades against government inefficiency mixed in
with business and human interest stories along with updates on
the most recent disaster (weather, roads, etc.). Even more
interestingly, SGP was in the forefront of a media blitz that
helped prevent censors from canceling the publication of the
Vietnamese version of the book "A Perfect Spy" (ref A).

3. (SBU) The story behind the publication of "A Perfect Spy"
provides a good example of one method the press uses to confound
the censors. After learning that censors were leaning toward
banning publication, media outlets preemptively ran multiple
articles on the book, including publishing excerpts. This did
not violate any explicit ruling, since the work had not yet been
banned. Related articles--based on interviews with the author
and previous Vietnamese books written about the same
spy--avoided scrutiny from the censors while clearly building a
public expectation that the book would soon be available in
bookstores. In the end, the censors backed down and the book
was not banned (and instead became an instant best seller). One
key to the success of this "guerilla media campaign" in which
numerous media outlets participated was the editors' knowledge
that while the book clearly broke new ground by contradicting
"official" histories of the war years, the book also appealed to
a number of senior leaders who understand the need to broaden
the freedom to print straightforward, accurate histories.
Senior party leadership, including President Triet and former PM
Vo Van Kiet, received advanced copies courtesy of the
pro-publication advocates and then commented that they liked the
book and found nothing objectionable in it.

--------------------------------------------- --
4. (SBU) Censorship of the press continues. No paper dares to
publish articles on human rights in Vietnam, the advantages of
direct elections and the democratic process or any of a wide
range of other topics. They do not dare directly criticize the
nation's top leaders. Even in areas that are generally open to
criticism such as economic issues, planning, infrastructure,
corruption, education, business and health care, there are clear
limits to what can be said about GVN's top leadership. In a
highly unfortunate incident, the GVN decided not to renew the
contracts of two top editors at Vietnam's largest circulation
(and very pro-reform) daily paper Tuoi Tre (Young Age). At
present, the two editors remain in place at Tuoi Tre until their
contracts run out at the end of this year. They have not yet
received word on their future assignments, but will likely
reappear in different media positions. Sources say the editors
were targeted because the paper defied censors by publishing

HO CHI MIN 00001136 002.2 OF 003

detailed stories reporting on alleged corruption by Vietnam's
state bank governor in the issuance of new polymer banknotes.
While contacts also report that Tuoi Tre was criticized for
being too aggressive with its articles advocating more
democratic reforms in the run-up to the 2006 Party Congress (ref
B), former PM Kiet and others have told us that Tuoi Tre's
decision to directly defy censors three times by publishing
additional articles on the banknote scandal contributed to the
GVN's decision not to renew terms for the two editors.

5. (SBU) Tuoi Tre reporters attempted unsuccessfully to
reinstate the former editors via petition, and others outside
the paper have also voiced their objections to the editorial
changeup. Former Prime Minister Kiet, one of the key architects
of Vietnam's doi moi (renovation) policy and an outspoken
reformer, called the decision "too harsh" and said the Union's
"administrative shirt has become too tight" for a newspaper as
big as Tuoi Tre. One senior HCMC news editor's prediction that
events at Tuoi Tre "will not succeed in changing the newspaper's
attitude," has proven entirely correct -- the paper is as feisty
as ever and continues to push the envelope of free speech almost
daily. The same editor added that although many newspapers are
directed to submit "self-criticism" reports to authorities after
being cited for violations, he and his fellow reporters "have no
regrets" and continue to push forward.

--------------------------------------------- ------
6. (SBU) A number of Vietnamese institutions, including senior
officials, the Parliament as well as numerous regulatory bodies,
are playing a strong -- even if unintentional -- role in
promoting more active, honest reporting. They play this role
because they are willing to provide accurate information or even
to criticize the GVN on the record. A hard-hitting Tuoi Tre
article berating GVN anti-corruption campaigns as being long on
rhetoric but short on teeth was bolstered by numerous quotes
from Parliamentary debate in which representatives criticized
the apparent disconnect between the strength of senior
officials' anti-corruption rhetoric and the weakness of the
actions normally taken when wrongdoing occurs. Even the MPS (an
organization not generally noted for pro-reform tendencies) was
cited repeatedly in the Tuoi Tre article because they provided
statistics showing that even as the dollar value convicted
corruption cases has increased, the fines levied have declined.

7. (SBU) Another HCMC daily paper, Thanh Nien, has proven
particularly adept eliciting juicy comments from senior former
officials who, despite having left their GVN postings, remain
well connected enough that censors would definitely think twice
before trying to silence them. A former vice minister of the
economy, for example, was quoted as saying that the main
impediment to improving Vietnam's antiquated and
counterproductive land use laws is that under the current system
corrupt officials can collude with private businesses to gain
control of huge tracts of valuable land. Backed up with
detailed statistics and good research, that quote made for
high-impact reporting that pushes the envelope on corruption
reporting by implicating the whole system rather than just of

8. (SBU) As these examples show, increased exposure to outside
media (including programs funded though our Public Affairs
Section Section) are helping by developing the professionalism
of reporters in Southern Vietnam. Rather than publishing
unverifiable accusations of corruption or mismanagement, the
print media, in particular, develop highly detailed and sourced
feature length articles filled with statistics, facts and quotes
from official sources and well-known, well-placed individuals.
It is very difficult for censors to criticize the resulting
article without also criticizing the array of GVN officials and
agencies who supplied the information presented.

--------------------------------------------- -
9. (SBU) While we have no doubt that a dedication to their
profession plays a big role in motivating editors to push
forward with reforms in spite of the risks and harassment that
can result, that is not the only reason. Part of what is
feeding the now widespread movement toward more straightforward
reporting is the nexus of the profit motive and the public's
appetite for genuine news. Even though every media outlet is
tied to some GVN or CP organ, nearly all are also financially
self-supporting. After ten years of almost constantly pushing
the envelope in terms of what can be published in Vietnam, the
newspaper Tuoi Tre rose from being a youth organization's
newsletter to become the nation's largest circulation and most
profitable daily and the cornerstone of a growing media empire.
Tuoi Tre is not only Vietnam's largest circulation daily, its
circulation is larger than the next five dailies combined. It

HO CHI MIN 00001136 003.2 OF 003

is no surprise that other HCMC-based dailies such as Thanh Nien
and Saigon Giai Phong have been motivated to follow -- and
perhaps try to surpass -- Tuoi Tre's pioneering example. Other
print media outlets, such as Phap Luat (The Law) have expanded
from a weekly to a daily format. Even niche publications such
as Phu Nu (Woman) are jumping into investigative reporting. The
competition is on to see who can print the news that Vietnamese
readers want to purchase.

9. (SBU) Despite competition for readership, newspapers remain
willing to support each other when one is threatened. The
publication of "A Perfect Spy" described earlier provides one
example of this phenomenon since numerous papers and one TV
station joined a campaign to prevent censors from killing the
book's publication. A recent press battle surrounding comments
by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education Nguyen
Thien Nhan provides an even more telling example. Nhan, a
southerner and U.S. Fulbright alumni often lauded for his
pro-reform agenda suffered a serious case of "foot in mouth
disease" when he told reporters asking about his education
initiative that "having fewer students in school because of
recent hikes in school fees was acceptable." When Nhan's
comments were printed in SGP, Nhan fired back by writing to the
paper's editor that "the reporter needs to be brought to face
punishments according to the law." Nhan went on to accuse the
reporter of using statistics from foreign sources, thus
"insulting and demonizing the fatherland." Within days, other
news outlets began publishing the notes from their reporters and
an entire recording of Nhan's ill-chosen words appeared on
popular blogs, including one associated with the editor of Phap
Luat newspaper. Due to Nhan's attempt to have the reporter
sanctioned, what started as a minor story in one paper became a
major story in almost every media outlet across the south and
the person whose reputation suffered was not the reporter's but
the DPM's.

10. (SBU) The emergence of personal web logs, or blogs, is
noteworthy as journalist bloggers start to touch on domestic
politics, with the information made available publicly on the
internet. Despite GVN efforts to control the Internet, blogs
are spreading and some reporters from traditional media are
keeping blogs, as is at least one member of the national
Parliament. One advantage of blogs is that their very nature
makes them free from prior censorship since information is
posted directly from a blogger's PC to the web, unlike a
newspaper article that runs through a series of editors and
typesetters. So, while bloggers still face the same risk of
being charged with violating national security rules if they
blatantly violate censorship guidelines, as long as they only
push the envelope they can defend themselves by pleading
ignorance -- "no one told me NOT to publish that."

11. (SBU) Make no mistake -- censorship lives and is the rule in
Vietnam. Despite this, however, we should not underestimate the
importance of this paradigm shift from a "total control" model
to a "censorship model." Similarly, while we know of many
examples of reporters and media outlets that have been
criticized by various GVN officials for pushing the envelope too
far, the good news is that they continue to push it anyway. The
firing of two editors from Tuoi Tre has not changed the paper's
content one bit; neither did a police decision to harass
participants at a Consulate-sponsored training program for
economics reporters at SGP. Despite these acts of harassment,
the papers press on and enjoy wide, high-level support. We
suspect that former Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet is not alone in
his view that Vietnam needs to dismantle most administrative
controls over the press in order to develop a "competitive media
environment." End comment.

© Scoop Media

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