Vietnamese Journalists Fight Old Habits

By JOHN SPRAGENS Jr.

HANOI, Vietnam -- For many of Vietnam's leading journalists the openness allowed -- and even demanded -- by the country's new reform policies requires major adjustments.

When Vietnam's Communist Party was an underground revolutionary movement, its newspapers were simply the voice of the party. That tradition persisted during the war years.

A Hanoi pedicab driver reads the morning paper as he waits for a fare.

To this day, many Vietnamese journalists habitually wait to hear the official word from above before they write anything, says Bui Tin, deputy editor of the Communist Party daily Nhan Dan -- The People.

It still is common to see the party and army dailies use the same photograph of a national leader at an official ceremony in the same prominent position with virtually the same headline -- through instinct, not because of any official directive.

But Vietnamese reporters are also venturing onto the unsteady ground of investigative reporting.

Evidence of corruption and abuse of power turned up by newspaper reporters has led to the sacking of a number of middle-level officials -- among them at least one provincial governor.

Tin describes the Bui An Tinh affair, an intricate conspiracy his reporters investigated last year.

Tinh was the director of a honey packing plant in Hai Hung province southeast of the capital. Over a period of two years, he had placed a daughter and a son-in-law in government offices and secured key positions for several other relatives. To cement his network of influence, he had given a job to one of the children of the deputy governor of the province.

His primary crime was speculation in foreign currencies, taking advantage of his plant's export business and his government connections.

He also was cutting his honey with sugar water. And instead of shipping honey with deer antlers -- a concoction prized in Hong Kong -- he had been substituting water buffalo horn.

Tinh's schemes began to come to light, Tin says, when a woman he had fired came to the Nhan Dan offices to complain.

The paper launched an investigation that took six months and involved four trips to Hai Hung province by three different reporters.

In the end, Tinh lost his job, was kicked out of the party and was sentenced to seven years in prison. But, editor Tin says, Tinh and other subjects of the paper's investigations do not give up without a fight.

Bui Tin

"They will bring in people to denounce us," Tin says. "You have to have all the details in order, or they will take three or four inaccuracies and use them to try to undermine the whole report."

Journalists also must be careful because the new press guidelines -- and a press law that is being drafted -- allow people to bring libel charges against them if they publish unsubstantiated accusations.

"We used to have to clear every critical article with the party secretariat and party publications committee," Tin says. "Now the paper is on its own, and the editorial board is responsible before the law for the contents of the paper."

This has led editors to consult lawyers on sensitive stories, says Vu Kim Hanh, editor in chief of the popular Ho Chi Minh City paper Tuoi Tre -- Youth.

"Sometimes I even bring in a second lawyer, one who has no connection with the first one," she says. "He will set out all his questions. And if the reporter can't answer them, we won't publish the article."

This does not mean Vietnam's newspaper readers spend all their time reflecting on misdeeds of the mighty. One of the hottest stories of 1988 was Hanoi's first beauty contest, won by Bui Bich Phuong, a first year English student at Hanoi University. Hanh says a reader poll showed Tuoi Tre's most read page is the sports page. And police newspapers are enjoying a surge of popularity.

Begun as in-house publications for the police force, weekly police tabloids from every major city and province are now available to the public. Half a dozen make their way to Ho Chi Minh City newsstands, where it seems people can't get enough of their real-life stories of crime and mystery.

Still, Hanh says, many Vietnamese readers are interested in more serious topics, and for good reason.

"In Vietnam there are many difficulties that strike directly at people's daily life," she says, "and they want to find answers. They hope that those answers will change their own lives, so they are interested in different issues from those that interest Americans.

"For example, our young people now are especially conscious of unemployment and the search for jobs," she says. "Or for those who have jobs, the workers are concerned because there isn't enough energy to run the machines. Or their pay isn't adequate compensation for the effort they put out."

There are themes the press may not publish, and others it simply avoids.

The officially proscribed list, says Nhan Dan's Tin, includes glorification of war and violence plus anything that would stir discord among ethnic groups.

The unwritten list of prohibited topics, according to one journalist in the South, includes any suggestion that Vietnam should move to a multiparty system. But some papers are nipping at the heels of even this sacred cow.

"I know that now in Hungary and the Soviet Union they are raising the issue of second parties." Hanh says. "We get that news, and we report it in the paper."


Text copyright © 1989 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Florida

Published Jan. 14, 1989

Photographs copyright © 1989 John Spragens, Jr.


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