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Thayer Consultancy

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Background Briefing: Vietnam: The Press is not yet the Fourth Estate Carlyle A. Thayer February 21, 2012

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1. The media's coverage of the Hai Phong shootout has prompted Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to wade into the controversy. Dung also expressed his appreciation fortherolereportersplayedduringthecrisisandhopedthatthemediawouldcontinue its good work in "serving the nation" and "orienting public opinion". Dung was also quoted as saying that the press had "provided plenty of timely reports covering many aspects of the incident, analysis from various perspectives and in a major way helped centralgovernmentagenciestoseethematterclearlyandproceedtodealwithitinan appropriateway".Whatisthesignificanceofconveyingthismessageatthistimetothe Vietnamese media, after several independent studies have pointed out that the corruptionrelatedcoveragehasdecreasedoverthepastfiveyearsandthatatleast80 percentofVietnamesejournalistsareoftenhinderedfromcarryingouttheirduties?

ANSWER: Ever since Vietnam initiated doi moi in 1986 it has not developed an effective policy for the role of the media in a society undergoing profound transformation. There have been periods when the press has been encouraged to play a proactive role. There are other periods when the press has been reined in. Deciding what are the limits of press reporting and freedom in Vietnam is being constantly negotiated. In the case of the land dispute at Tien Lang national issues wereattheheartofthematter.Landdisputeshavebeenapersistentproblemthat the Vietnamese government needs to resolve. It is difficult to know why the press wasgivensuchleewaytoinvestigate,reportandeditorializeonthisissue.Nodoubt pressreportsfoundsympathyfromveryseniorleaders.Overallthepressactedina proactive and responsible manner, shortcircuiting a cumbersome bureaucratic processthatcouldhavetakenmonthstoresolve.Oncethesignificanceoftheland disputewasrecognizedthePrimeMinisterrealizedthatactionwasnecessary.Next yearmanyleaseswillexpireandneedtoberenewed. The land dispute differs from corruption. Land issues largely involve administrative procedure. When the local government errs, as in the Tien Lang case, higher

2 governmentofficialsmayintervenetorectifythesituation.Inlanddisputesthepress canhighlightadministrativeabusesbylocalofficials. Corruptionispervasiveandisacriminaloffense.Ifthepressbecomesinvolvedtheir reporting can force the government to take action. But in many cases, particularly when party members are involved, the authorities prefer to take internal party disciplinaryactionratherthaninstitutecriminalproceedings.Theroleofthepressis especiallysensitiveifhigherupsareinvolvedincorruption.
2.Overthepastdecade,thepartyandgovernmentleadershaveappearedtorelyonthe national media to provide them with timely intelligence on what is happening at the local level, information that it cannot count on receiving from local administrative or partystructures.Isittruetosaythatmediareportingwouldshapeaconsensusthatif thestateandPartydonottakeresoluteandeffectiveactiontosubduecorruptionand bullyboybehaviorbyvillageofficialsacrossthecountry,theyruntheriskoflosingthe loyaltyoftheruralpopulation?If,sowhy?Ifnot,whynot?

ANSWER:TheVietnamesepressisnotaunifiedbody.Therearemanymediaoutlets, including local newspapers and national papers. Bloggers may also be included. Mediareportingwillhaveavariableimpactonpartyandstateleadersdependingon what issues are involved. In the Tien Lang case, once senior retired officials spoke outandespeciallyafterPrimeMinisterNguyenTanDungintervened,itwasclearto thepublicwhichwasthewindwasblowing.Othercases,likeMrs.TranNgocSuong, canbeprotractedaffair.Consensuscanshiftovertime.Thebottomlineisthatthe press,particularlyanumberofkeynationaldallies,thatplayacrucialroleinhelping Vietnambecomealawgovernedstate.
3. With Vietnamese leaders reportedly considering shakeup of the lower ranks of the party"amatteroflifeanddeathfortheregime",isitoverlyoptimistictosaythatthe publicdebateovertheTienLangshootoutthatplayedoutinVietnam'sdailypapershas clearlystrengthenedtheirhandandintheprocessreinvigoratedthecountry'swhistle blowing reporters? When the Tien Lang case is over, which recourse should the Vietnamesemediaturntoinordertosustainthismomentum?

ANSWER: It is premature to declare that the press reporting of the Tien Lang shootout marks a major turning point in government and party policy towards the press. Proactive media reporting was permitted because it reflected the concerns already held by top leaders. In this environment the press was able to mobilize publicopinionbywidelysolicitingtheviewsofretiredofficials,mostnotablyformer statepresidentLeDucAnh.Butthereareothersensitiveareaswherethepressdoes not have freedom to report. Any journalist who encroaches into forbidden territory will be swiftly dealt with. We should recall that newly elected party secretarygeneralNguyenVanLinhatfirstsoughttomobilizethemediatopromote reforms.Butthoseofficialsinchargeofoverseeinginformationandculturequickly

3 reined in journalists who ventured into sensitive areas. Statepress relations in Vietnam should be viewed as a dialectical relationship, cooperation and friction promote change, but only slowly and gradually. The party is still the main force leading state and society. Vietnam is a unitary state with the powers of the executive, legislature and judiciary combined. Vietnam has not reached the stage wherethepresshasemergedasanindependentfourthestate.