This article was originally published on Asia Sentinel.
The leaders of Vietnam’s Communist Party are groping for answers on whether Facebook is a mortal threat to the party’s grip on power or if it is a new opportunity to communicate with the country’s 90 million citizens. As the party begins a highly political year, with a possibly momentous Party Congress on the horizon, the Facebook phenomenon has risen high on its political agenda.
There is plenty that’s posted in the social media that gives conservatives in the Politburo indigestion. For example, as the popular former mayor of the city of Danang lay dying of leukemia in December, rumors swirled that in fact he had been poisoned by Chinese agents at the behest of the regime’s “pro-China faction.” Just before that, an even more toxic story circulated to the effect that in a conclave with Chinese leaders in Chengdu in 1988, leaders of the same China faction agreed that Vietnam, in return for Chinese support, would become a de facto region of China.
Whether those rumors are subversive or just plain silly, the party/state’s efforts to prevent citizens from accessing ideas on the Web have failed utterly. The Hanoi regime has a habit of issuing decrees that it cannot enforce. Decree 72, issued in August 2013, for example, included an article forbidding people who post to social media from “providing aggregated news.” That prompted a fusillade of tut-tutting by foreign media and free speech organizations, but did Vietnamese Facebookers change their ways? Not one bit.
Nor have the efforts of Vietnam’s internal security agencies to intimidate Vietnam’s dissident blogger community been conspicuously successful. Several dozen bloggers now languish in jail, but new blogs still spring up to fill the spaces left by the suppression of others.
The people who run the Vietnamese Communist Party’s Propaganda and Training Department haven’t given up. Now they are pushing a plan for consolidation of the media under state control. It is an effort with a familiar objective: rationalize the media so it will do a better job of “meeting the need for news that serves the need to build and defend the Nation and raises the morale and develops the mastership of the People.”
“Mastership of the People” is double-speak for Party control over Vietnam’s political life.
The consolidation plan circulated widely in official channels toward the end of 2014, stunning the editors of the nation’s two or three dozen still-profitable newspapers. These papers are the elite of Vietnam’s “mainstream” (licensed and supervised) publishing sector. They are semi-independent of the censor because they are profitable, and profitable because they serve up to readers an imaginative and insightful mix of stories that comply no more than necessary with guidance from the Propaganda Department and its executive arm, the Media Bureau of the Ministry of Information and Communications.
“What they’re trying to do,” one editor explained, “is to dictate the narrative in the media that they still control.” If the consolidation plan is implemented, “it will kill us,” he added.
A copy of the Propaganda Department plan provided to Asia Sentinel (where this story was originally published) counts 199 print newspapers and 98 online papers (of which 76 are the online editions of print newspapers). “That’s not rational,” say the plan’s authors. “Access to information is overabundant in some places and lacking in others.” Further, the plan points out, many of these papers depend on subsidies from the state’s various institutions.
The Propaganda Department has a point. Even though Vietnam’s press has been allowed to sell advertising and fill its pages with sensational stories for a quarter-century, overall the media is a drag on the state budget. Many papers are simply propaganda-laden house organs of ministries, agencies, institutes, state-chartered associations or local governments, with small circulation and even smaller readership. These could vanish and no one would shed a tear except, perhaps, in the Propaganda Department.
Ironically, what the official minders of the media want is to make Vietnam’s best newspapers more like its worst, i.e. reliable purveyors of official rhetoric. They propose to do this by sponsoring mergers between the financially strong and the financially weak. In other words, the handful of papers with an independent streak and mass appeal would be forced to absorb Party-line publications. According to a senior official, the state would insist that the media discharge its political and propaganda duty, and “not run purely after profit, nor let private individuals own the media, nor let ‘the interests’ control the media.”
More irony: the project to strengthen “leadership” of the media under state control (which includes radio and TV networks as well as newspapers and magazines) is motivated by realization that in Vietnam as elsewhere, social media platforms are fast becoming the dominant purveyors of information.
The rapid development of information technology, the explosive growth of the Internet, globalization . . . , the destructive activities of our enemies, and… economic difficulties have created lots of problems for our mission of leading and managing the media.
Yet more irony: anonymous blogs by political insiders, a new feature of Vietnam’s cyberspace, are stealing readers from the conventional press. In past political years, the newspapers could expect plenty of leaks as party factions jostled for advantage. This year government censors have imposed a tight lid on such stories, even though online plenty of well-sourced exposés titillate Vietnam’s political junkies.
The Propaganda Department’s media consolidation plan was considered and approved in principle during the 10th Plenum of the party’s Central Committee in January. Before, during, and after that meeting, custodians of the party line highlighted the threat from unregulated online media.
Department chief Dinh The Huynh, one of the 16 members of the Politburo, chided the mainstream media for passivity. “When you know full well that some news is wrong, even fabricated, you yourself should refute it, and not wait for guidance.” Huynh warned further against “what is called Western-style ‘freedom of speech and opinion,’ a concept that’s being exploited to slander…the revolutionary press, to induce journalists to abandon their political mission.”
Deputy Minister of Information Truong Minh Tuan declared that Vietnam is in an information war and that many citizens will be seduced by distorted or libelous online content unless responsible authorities and the mainstream media react swiftly.
“Hundreds of websites with servers in foreign countries…distort, mock and slander the party and libel and offend the honor of senior Party leaders, aiming at splitting the people from the party,” he said. “This is cyber-crime, a violation of Vietnam’s Constitution.” He described the media as:
the means of information, an instrument of propaganda, an important ideological weapon of the party and state, the forum of the people, established under the Party’s direct and comprehensive leadership.
The next day, January 16, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung used a year-end review of his government’s accomplishments to put his own more positive spin on the Facebook phenomenon. Speaking to his chief subordinates, the PM insisted that they and their staff go on line to address developing issues urgently, transparently and accurately. “All of you use the social media, you flip open your smart phones to see what’s being said on Facebook.” Dung stressed that no one would be reprimanded for taking the initiative to correct bad information on matters within their competence.
“On the ‘Net, anyone can say whatever they want, but if there’s the ‘orthodox’ version from the Gov’t, the people will trust it,” Dung said. “This is a new responsibility that must be done well this year.” He continued:
[More than 30 million Vietnamese] insist on getting their news from the Internet. That’s something we cannot prohibit. What is important is that responsible agencies must supply accurate information so that the people aren’t led astray by incorrect information.
As for the media consolidation plan, a merger between the top TV network and a smaller cable channel has been announced that will be consummated in 2017. Other consolidation initiatives will probably go on hold until the party congress next January. Both progressives and conservatives agree in principle that bad information ought to be promptly corrected. Will that happen with a party congress pending? As long as the outcome is unclear, senior officials more than likely will err on the side of caution.
Dung and his supporters are a pragmatic though not uniformly progressive bunch. If they emerge dominant from the congress – as seems likely – it’s a safe bet that the present media plan will be scrapped in favor of something less ideological and more market-friendly.
David Brown is a retired US diplomat with wide experience in Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam.