Media still closely regulated in Vietnam

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Downsizing newsrooms, laying off staff and readership evaporating – It’s the now all-familiar struggle that media companies around the world are grappling with.

Except, it seems, in Vietnam.

According to the government, the country has around “700 licensed media outlets”, and that number is growing fast. The internet is playing a big part in the increase, but readership of newspapers remains high.

Cuong Nghiem, a reporter for Forbes Magazine in Vietnam, says the reason traditional outlets are staying strong can be put down to several factors.

“The Vietnamese people want to hear from the experts,” Mr Nghiem says.

“The people with access to the experts are the trusted journalists, so the Vietnamese people believe in us and read us, rather than the citizen journalists.”

Mr Nghiem says traditional outlets had embraced the internet age, and unlike in the west, bloggers aren’t able to thrive due to government regulation.

“The bloggers here just can’t grow into something like they do in the west,” he says.

“Because the media is still a part of government here, so if bloggers want to be big they need a license, but there are no licenses anyway for bloggers in the country.”

A Vietnamese TV reporter records her piece-to-camera during the Tet New Year period

A Vietnamese TV reporter records her piece-to-camera during the Tet New Year period

Ministry of Foreign Affairs press officer, Nguyen Vu Thuy Duong, offers some insights into how the process works, saying the focus of the press in Vietnam is to make the country stronger.

“Big media outlets in the country are under government control, an example is Vietnamese TV, it is almost considered a government ministry,” she says.

“Reporters who work for the big media are more trusted by the people.”

But perhaps in a sign of the government’s control over the press, and its distrust of those it can’t command, at one point this very website was unable to be accessed from within Vietnam for several days. The site could still be viewed in Australia, leading to speculation that the government may have taken it down.

As we were filing our stories in the frosty air conditioned Hanoi hotel room, we often tuned to the BBC for their top-of-the-hour news broadcasts. The only problem was, the news wasn’t on the hour, instead delayed by several minutes. CNN and Al Jazeera had the same delay, something that has previously been reported on.

Mr Nghiem says its something reporters just have to deal with.

“Everyone says that the media is the fourth estate, it’s still very big and powerful, so of course the government wants to control it,” he says.

“Lets say that you have an article that is quite sensitive of politics, you always have to think twice. Because, you know, the Vietnamese government doesn’t let any articles be negative about politics or their policy.”

However Ms Nguyen claims it had got better, and that reporters are able to be negative in their pieces.

“The directive isn’t don’t be negative about politics, it’s don’t say anything too negative about the government,” she says.

“They do monitor it and if you are, you may have to pay a small fine.”

The crew car of a government-backed TV channel parked in Hanoi

The crew car of a government-backed TV channel parked in Hanoi

But it’s not only the government that reporters struggle to deal with.

Convincing people to talk isn’t a problem that only reporters in Vietnam face, but it does seem to be worse within the country, due to cultural beliefs and fear.

“Vietnamese people are scared of journalists, and that’s because of the culture but also the government,” Mr Nghiem says.

“They are not sure of your idea, or your questions, they don’t know your subject, your article, and they do not want to talk about politics.”

Ms Nguyen disagrees, saying people aren’t scared of journalists, but shy.

“People here respect the journalists, they admire them,” she says.

“Journalists have quite a high position, other people will admire you, but they are a little bit shy about filming or recording. Culturally, women in Vietnam don’t want to stand out, so they often refuse to be on TV.”

But even with all the barriers, Mr Nghiem says it is getting easier.

“I am not sure about the future, but the regulation has got better,” he says.

“It’s a lot easier for us now.”

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Kai Hayes

Kai Hayes is entering his third year at the University of Queensland, studying a dual degree in a Bachelor of Journalism and a Bachelor of Business Management. He currently works as a Social Media Producer in the Nine Network’s Brisbane newsroom and has a keen interest in politics, aviation and music. Kai hopes the experience in Vietnam will assist with ambitions to one day live and work overseas as a producer or reporter in broadcast journalism.

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