Vietnam politics has been shaken by what Nguyen Phu Trong, the General Secretary of the Politburo of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), has said: “The fireplace is already bunched up; even the fresh wood will burn.”
At the height of the Communist Party’s political infighting in 2017, the mainstream media were questioned for untrustworthy information in addition to its traditionally sluggish responses to social changes, particularly to power fluctuations and political economy.
Hence, it was not uncommon for the public to have relied on the vibrant popularity of social media for information and opinions as alternative channels on Party insights, which have long been exclusive to outsiders and concerned individuals — prone to be prosecuted under the country’s repressive criminal code.
The Trinh Xuan Thanh case: Kidnap or surrender?
Trinh Xuan Thanh has gained significant popularity since late May 2016 when his privately owned high-end Lexus LX570 used a blue registration plate – which is assigned only to government agencies. This led to the downfall of Thanh’s political career, and finally resulted to a life sentence in January 2018. He had been believed to escape to Berlin, Germany since September 2016 seeking for asylum in the country. However, he suddenly appeared on the national television VTV1 to declare his decision of surrendering himself on 3 August 2017.
Since May 2016, the state-owned mainstream media started to depict Trinh Xuan Thanh as a “typical corrupt” official, who has been (and will be) “burned” under the fight against corruption led by General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong.
While the Vietnamese mainstream media insisted that Thanh gave himself up to the police, social media have spread a different narrative of his supposed illegal kidnapping and forced return from Germany to Vietnam.
The prosecution process of Thanh has been highlighted on the mainstream media from television to online sites. In the beginning, it was reported that in line with a career promotion, he was under investigation for his accountability in the loss of state-owned capital and the use of private car “in the name of the public owner.”
In Vietnam, transportation vehicle number plates are classified by colours: blue plates for governmental-owned vehicles, red plates for military-owned ones, and white for civilians. The government and military enjoy certain privileges in usage and transportation.
Later, the mainstream media shared the same story on what Thanh was accused of; for example, his accountability for a mass loss of VND 3,300 billion (USD 144 million) during his leadership as General Director and later President of the Petro Vietnam Construction Company (PVC). The accusation was related to the process of him being promoted as the Vice President of the Southern Hau Giang People Committee and other high positions despite having been charged for the financial loss in former positions.
Furthermore, the mainstream media focused on prosecuting Thanh after he had escaped the country from September 2016 to July 2017. His case was highlighted as part of Hanoi’s utmost determination to fight corruption. “The fireplace has already bunched up, then even the fresh firewood will burn,” said Nguyen Phu Trong at the 12th meeting of the Central Steering Committee for Anti-Corruption on 31 July 2017, when he mentioned several cases of crimes related to corruption including Thanh’s. News about the court case were published in the same voice and tone across hundreds of publications and broadcasting channels of the mainstream media.
However, it was easy to find different views and points from social media both inside and outside of the country. During the time Thanh disappeared, there was information on Facebook about where he was hiding. Bui Thanh Hieu (Nguoi Buon Gio – The wind dealer) on Facebook constantly published hints that Thanh was in Germany. Hieu also expressed Thanh’s requirement of “having a fair court with the international observers.” The information remained unconfirmed until Thanh appeared on the National Television Channel VTV1 to declare his confession and apologize. A few months later in court, Thanh begged to visit his wife and children in Germany once again before imprisonment, which reaffirmed that he was hiding in Germany and even sought asylum.
Regarding the return, there were two main opinions. Again, state-owned mainstream media said that Thanh gave himself up to the police. Social media users believed he was kidnapped in Berlin and brought back to Vietnam on an airplane. This information was widely spread on the Vietnamese version of British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and several international news sites and channels.
The most leading opponent was Le Trung Khoa’s Facebook. Khoa is the editor of nguoiviet.de, a well-known newspaper among Vietnamese living in Germany. From 31 July to 31 August 2017, there were 55 posts on Khoa’s Facebook related to Thanh’s case. The content of posts varied from the requirement of the German government to free Thanh, the impact of kidnapping Thanh to the Germany-Vietnam ties, the expulsion of Vietnamese diplomats, the firing of Vietnamese-German officer from the governmental agency, and the investigation on the intelligence activities of a three-star general of Vietnam Ministry of Public Security (MPS) in Germany. The news is available on thoibao.de and several international media channels.
The Phan Van Anh Vu case: Secret deals
Phan Van Anh Vu, nicknamed Vu “aluminium”, is known as a Viet real estate tycoon. He has been accused of selling public owned lands in Da Nang under “unclear condition,” which cost the government millions of US dollars.
In Vietnam, land is public property. It cannot be sold and only the “right to use land” can be legally sold. Real estate used by government is often priced cheaper than the “market” price.
Vu had allegedly taken advantage of this policy and had bought over 20 state-owned real estate projects with lower prices and sold them at “market” prices. And to be able to do so, Vu must have had close ties with government and political leaders.
Mid-2015, he was revealed to be an intelligence officer of the Vietnam Ministry of Public Security (MPS) and has a ranking of major. According to several confidential documents, which have been leaked, Vu and his company were the “corporate front” for the intelligence activities of the MPS. Vu had gradually divested from his companies. He had already fled when police raided his home in the central city of Da Nang on 21 December 2017. The wanted order for Vu had been released on 22 December 2017. He was reported to have violated Singapore’s immigration laws while on the run and was consequently deported and arrested in Hanoi on 4 January 2018.
Once again, the mainstream media disappointed its audience with the slow and monotonous news. The news was only about Vu’s escape to Singapore in order to fly to Europe from Malaysia and were temporarily arrested by border gate staff due to his violation of Singaporean immigration laws on 28 December 2017.
BBC, Singaporean news agency The Strait Times, and social media had immediately reported the events. The Vietnamese mainstream media remained quiet as usual until 4 January 2018, when Vu was officially detained from Singapore and arrested in Noi Bai, Hanoi. There was no information on the mainstream media that “kept its audience updated,” shared Nguyen Cong Khe, a journalist and the former President of the state-owned media corporation Thanh Nien.
Many editors from “leading opinion” mainstream media basically sought an earlier official news release, but “have no clearance” from “competent” authorities added Khe.
There was only one statement from General Luong Tam Quang, the MPS’ Chief of Staff, that he “had not (gotten) any information on such event.” All the mainstream media channels and sites wrote in “cut and copy style” — what information one media has are almost exactly the same as the others.
Khe said that Vo Van Thuong, head of the Central Propaganda Department – which is the agency that controls Vietnamese mainstream media – has complained several times about this tardiness.
However, this seemed to not have the effect of delivering “hot news” to audiences. This is why audiences seek the alternative media, where the news and opinions are much more diverse. As long as the mainstream media play catch-up with the social media, “the risk of information turbulence still persists, inevitably leading to the mass distrust of the people,” warned Vietnamese media tycoon Nguyen Cong Khe.
Media freedom: Still a long way to go
According to the Edelman Trust Barometer Report 2018: While trust in platforms – source for general news and information – declines (-2 points), trust in journalism – traditional media and online-only media – rebounds (+5 points).
However, this seemed to not be a fact for media trust in Vietnam. The public seeks the fulfillment of their information needs from social media.
There has yet to be a study that says social media information are more trustworthy than state-owned media’s. But at least, the public does not have to read the same content from hundreds of news — which is often the case for state-owned newspapers and channels.
Journalists are free to talk about everything, except to criticize politics – which has been considered as “sensitive topic” over the public sphere.
The report from Freedom House on Vietnam’s media freedom in 2016 is still considered as the most relevant: “The CPV, government institutions, or the army own or control almost all of Vietnam’s 850 print media outlets. Independent outlets are prohibited, though some companies are permitted to maintain private newspapers; news outlets that have covered sensitive topics may have their operating licenses confiscated.”
According to the Ministry of Information and Communications (MIC) in January 2018, Facebook has deleted 670 Facebook accounts in the 5,000 account-list sent to the company. Those accounts are considered “fake” or broadcasting “divisive” activities; “disrespecting” individuals and organizations; “opposing” the Communist Party; promoting “lewdness, depravity;” and inciting violence.
Similarly, the Hanoi information controllers have also requested Facebook to remove several video clips — which show alternative political views and opinions. This makes the mainstream media leaders even more cautious in writing or broadcasting “sensitive topics.”
Furthermore, “propaganda against the State” and “taking advantage of the freedom of expression to voice against the State” are still recognized and constituted in the criminal code. The risks of being condemned for above crimes are threatening those who dare to raise their voice on the wrongdoings of the government. There have been about 47 people arrested because they expressed their own political ideas or took part in peaceful protests against the government in 2017, according to the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR). Facing such issues, censorship and self-censorship have become the practice.
As a result, the mainstream media are controlled by the government and do not dare raise different voices or publish information “non-verified by the government.”