“Dirty journalism” became an important media buzzword in 2016, as controversies emerged from news media in relation to corruption in the media, including alleged collusion with big business. Such reporting may be the inevitable by-product of state press control and increasing competition for financial self-sustainability.
In competing against the popularity of social media and citizen journalism, state-owned media agencies are trapped between maintaining financial independence and content self-censorship. A number of news outlets have been warned and penalised for their failure to protect public interest for involvement in “black public relation strategies” of private firms.
Killing a traditional handicraft
On 17 October 2016, the non-profit Vietnam Standards and Consumers Association (Vinastas) announced laboratory results showing that 67% of tested samples of fish sauce in Vietnam exceeded arsenic limits safe for human consumption. The report said that arsenic is remarkably high in traditionally-made fish sauce samples, while within the legal limit for industrial fish sauce.
As several press agencies published the findings of Vinastas, the news went viral on social media, shaking public trust in traditional fish sauce, which consumers preferred over industrial versions. News of arsenic content in fish sauce caused many families to omit the essential ingredient that gives many dishes in Vietnamese cuisine a distinctive flavor. Several supermarkets also removed traditional fish sauce from their shelves. The fallout threatened to affect the livelihood of millions of fishermen and caused fish sauce dealers and customers much anxiety from the sudden distrust of the traditional ingredient.
In response, the association of fish and fish sauce producers requested Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc draw up immediate measures to “rescue the traditional handicraft”.
Following a request by the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development tested 247 samples from 82 fish sauce producing workshops. The results later showed all samples to be safe. These test results clarified that the arsenic in the traditional fish sauce is organic, which is much safer than the lethal inorganic arsenic; adding that organic arsenic in fish sauce poses no harm to human health. Therefore, it appeared that the media ignored the difference between two types of arsenic.
Amid the controversy, the local Thanh Nien (The Youth) newspaper released two fish sauce advertisements from the food conglomerate Masan Group claiming their products were “non-arsenic fish sauce”. The advertisements raised suspicions of collaboration between mainstream media and private fish sauce producing companies in jointly “eliminating the traditional fish sauce from market”. Interestingly, the studies of Vinastas were sponsored by Masan.
In the end, Vinatas officially apologised for their error. Vietnamese mainstream media also announced a list of 50 state-owned newsrooms penalised by the government under three different levels of fines, for (1) misrepresenting information detrimental to national interests; (2) giving false information causing very serious consequences, and (3) misleading information causing serious consequencesi.
Correcting the Prime Minister’s words
“I have to tell you all that there is no urban planning theory which can tolerate the idea of building 50-storey skyscraper at the heart of the Giang Vo centre where infrastructure cannot accommodate thousands of apartments. If we allowed skyscrapers to be constructed anywhere in this city, how would Hanoi be like? We are the causes of our risks,” spoke the Vietnamese Prime Minister in the monthly governmental online conference on 28 December 2016 in Hanoi.
Notably, the Prime Minister directly pinpointed a construction project which would erect ten 50-storey buildings for 2,800 apartments in Giang Vo, the current national exhibition centre in capital.
Many state-owned media quoted the PM’s words as headlines in breaking news articles on that day. The following day however, numerous newspapers changed their titles on the stories that were published.
Many changed keywords of the story. For instance, the phrase “50 storey building” was replaced by “high building”. Moreover, others omitted any reference to VIN Group, the biggest Vietnamese real estate company which is the investor of the project, in effect softening the PM’s words. For instance:
the local Nguoi Lao Dong (The Labor) newspaper changed the original headline “Which plan justifies the construction of 50 storey building in Giang Vo, asked PM” to “The dense high-building to cause traffic congestions”;
the local Vietnamnet online newspaper revised “Fifty-storey building in the city center, two cars per healthy family: which way to go?” to “High building in the city center, two cars per healthy family: which way to go?”;
the Dan Viet (Viet People) online newspaper switched “Who can bear a fifty storey building in Giang Vo” to “Not for the immediate benefit that they forget about the community, said PM”;
the local Zing online newspaper replaced “Who licensed the 50-storey building in Giang Vo, asked PM” to “Hanoi and HCM City need to review urban planning”; and
the Radio the Voice of Vietnam portal shifted “PM talked about high building in Giang Vo” to “Thanks the PM”ii.
A highly influential Vietnamese reporter questioned the changes, and alluded to the “miracle role” the VIN Group’s communication and public relations team.
The controversy stemmed from ongoing criticism of Hanoi’s urban planning direction, specifically for the infrastructure development undertaken to meet the challenges of rapid urbanisation. Traffic jams are becoming serious while the air and water quality is degrading. The construction of high buildings in the centre of the city therefore poses a “foreseeable disaster”, with the Giang Vo project predicted to become a “road to avoid” because of the resulting traffic gridlock.
Moreover, criticism about discussions on urban planning raises even more serious issues in the country where the land remains public property under the Constitution. People are merely entitled to the right to use land, but not to the right to own it. Under such a framework, the government has the sole prerogative to make decisions on land issues. In practice, the government reserves the right to recover land for public purposes with low compensation to users. On the other hand, for private sector projects “without state interest”, government normally has to negotiate the compensation rate with such users.
However, through “collaboration” with government officials, private companies can often gain land use rights at a lower price for commercial projects than those directly negotiated with government. According to the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, approximately of 70 percent of the prolonged complaints filed to the ministry are land-related casesiii.
The Giang Vo project was approved under the administration of the former PM Nguyen Tan Dung. Its high visibility is a usual consequence of competition among different interest groups of politicians and businessmen over respective interests.
“For a long time of my journalistic career, I have never witnessed the situation that the PM’s word is strangely distorted and squeezed like this”, complained a leading Vietnamese newspaper journalist. He added that whenever “the distortion of the PM’s words purposefully happens, this is usually for the public benefit. This [Giang Vo project] is not only a journalistic ethical violation but also a crime”.
Since all media agencies in Vietnam are state owned, this case of newspaper editors daring to revise the words of the Prime Minister – who is among the four most powerful figures in the country – is even more unprecedented.
Online reactions from the public questioned the investor of the project if they paid the media for the revisions.
Press competition goes wrong way
Vietnamese state-owned media is facing increasing stress over the losing readers and audience in recent years. On the one hand, traditional newspapers face increasing competition from online news and other media.
In the final reports of the National Newspaper Conferences in 2014, 2015 and 2016, the number of press agencies have increased from 838 to 845 and to 857 agencies, respectively; with journals from university and research institutes comprising most of the increase. The same period also witnessed an increase in the number of online news increased from 92 to 97 and 105, respectively.
The number of people working in journalism increased as well over the years with 40,000 in 2014, from 15,000 in 2005. The number of journalists and reporters with official press cards increased from 8,000 In 1999 to 17,000 in 2011. By the end of 2014, there were 18,000 certified journalists and 5,000 people practising journalism without press cardsiv.
Meanwhile, the dilemma of maintaining revenue and abiding by government rules has been increasingly debated. Previously, the government issued Decree No. 115/2005/ND-CP, providing for the autonomy and self-management mechanism applicable to public scientific and technological organizations;v and Decree No. 43/2006/ND-CP, providing for the right to autonomy and self-responsibility for task performance, organizational apparatus, payroll and finance of public non-business units.vi These decrees have put the state-owned media agencies of Vietnam in a position of relative financial independence.
On the other hand, the fact is that media in Vietnam is still under absolute content control by the state, Media is not only state-owned, but also actively monitored and reviewed to ensure that content is strictly confined to allowed topics.
Mainstream media must thus satisfy two needs at the same time: the need to attract viewers which directly influences revenue, and the need to be on the “right side” of the governmental controls, which means avoiding controversial issues that can pique public interest. In other words, they face the dilemma of maintaining income and sustainability by attracting as many viewers as possible, and avoiding criticism of the government as well as sensitive issues.
The positive consequence of this policy is escalating competition in journalism in the country. In particular, journalists are required to react quickly to access and provide information. This is perhaps the first time in Vietnam’s journalism history that there is emphasis on exclusiveness of information and sources. To ensure revenue and the development of editorial offices, news needs to be updated more quickly, featuring more perspectives, with originality to attract as wide an audience as possible.
However, many have resorted to producing “tabloid news”. In addition to the need to attract advertisement, media agencies often enter into communication contracts with the private sector, sometimes under “black public relation strategies”. The arsenic fish sauce case is one of the more prominent examples.
Vietnam has made no significant improvement in press freedom freedom in 2016, ranking at 175 out of 181 in the Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) 2016 World Press Freedom Index. RSF attributes this to the fact that “the media all take their orders from the Communist Party”. Therefore, “the only source of independently-reported information are bloggers and citizen-journalists, who are the permanent targets of extremely harsh forms of persecution including police violence”.vii
Moreover, RSF added that “Decree No. 72” restricts Internet use to “personal information” while “abusing democratic freedoms” is punishable by imprisonment under the criminal code.
The next years of Vietnamese journalism are predicted to be stuck in the vicious cycle of self-financing and management, and control of information and opinion. Furthermore, resorting to “dirty journalism” that sacrifices the public interest – instead of pressing for independence from governmental control – is not the way toward greater press freedom in Vietnam.
* The author of this article wishes to remain anonymous for safety reasons.
i Ministry of Information and Telecommunication
iii Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment
iv Regarding printed press, up to December 2013, there were 838 agencies (printed news: 199 in which 86 of central level, 113 of local level; magazine: 639 in which 507 of central level, 132 of local level). There is 01 national agency. Regarding online news, there were 92 agencies (in which 19 are officially launched in 2013). Out of 92, there are 72 online news, magazines owned by agencies with printed news version; while the rest 20 are independent news, magazines. There are 265 websites of compiled news.
Regarding printed press, up to December 2014, there were 845 agencies (printed news: 199 in which 86 of central level, 113 of local level; magazine: 646 in which 513 of central level, 133 of local level). There is 01 national agency. Regarding online news, there were 98 agencies (3 more agencies compared to 2013). Out of 98, there are 76 online news, magazines owned by agencies with printed news version; while the rest 22 are independent news, magazines
Regarding printed press, up to 2016, there are 857 agencies (printed news: 199 in which 86 of central level, 113 of local level; magazine: 658 in which 521 of central level, 137 of local level). Printed news increased in number mostly because of new journals of universities, research institues. There is 01 national agency. Regarding online news, there were 105 agencies (magazines (7 more agencies compared to 2013). Out of 105, there are 83 online news, magazines owned by agencies with printed news version; while the rest 22 are independent news. Several agencies have launched news-compiling websites to cater for the public’s demand. During the period of 5 years (2011-2015), there are 71 more print agencies (05 news, 66 magazines) and 44 online news agencies. The total number of news-compiling websites of authorized agencies are 248. Retrieved from the Ministry of Information and Communication portal: http://mic.gov.vn/Pages/TinTuc/116095/Tinh-hinh-phat-trien-linh-vuc-bao-chi-va-phat-thanh-truyen-hinh-nam-2015.html