WHO RUNS VIETNAM 5

The last effective tool of control the Party wielded—and the one it held to most tenaciously—was propaganda. That word made me cringe, but in Vietnam, as in many developing countries, it didn’t have a negative connotation. It meant news or information deemed to be in the best in¬terests of the nation. And if there was one thing the government had al¬ways made clear, it was that a free flow of information, debate, and dis¬cussion were not on Vietnam’s agenda. It was a very elitist thesis, the premise being that all wisdom belonged to the leadership. Ordinary peo¬ple were too ignorant to decide for themselves the merits of an issue.
After the French left Vietnam in 1954, many Northern writers and po¬ets looked for individual expression and creative freedom in the burst of pride and euphoria that accompanied the end of colonialism. A form of protest literature even flourished briefly. But its practitioners were soon branded malcontents and reactionaries and, like other intellectuals who dismissed the notion that the role of art was to serve the Party, were si¬lenced. Fifty-eight writers and poets from the Arts and Letters Associa¬tion, Neil L. Jamieson wrote in Understanding Vietnam, were sent in teams to work for six months in agricultural cooperatives, mines, lumber camps, road gangs, textile factories, and frontier outposts so their future work would reflect the new “reality” of Vietnam, as interpreted by born- again communists.
Commenting on the transition from colonialism to communism, Hoang Cam wrote:
Stop, write no more letters,
Lest each line be one more crime.
My parents have passed away.
Now I have new paren ts.
When can I be an orphan?
Doi moi—and the loosening of some state controls that came with it— led to a dramatic increase in the number of magazines and newspapers published in Vietnam. In the late 1970s, only a handful of drab, crude communist propaganda news sheets were available; twenty years later, the Vietnamese had a choice of 368 state-owned daily and weekly publica¬tions. Unlike the United States, where newspapers were losing public credibility, in Vietnam people trusted without question what they read in the papers, and almost everyone—the national literacy rate was 91 per¬cent—read a newspaper.
Newspaper layouts got brighter as the industry became more competitive; government subsidies were cut, forcing business managers to accept advertising and look for ways to increase revenue; editors (most, but not all, of whom are Party members) became responsible for the content in their publications; a few daring reporters tried to occasionally push, if only an inch or two, the bounds of Party limitations on what was accept¬able to write.
“There is no question we have more freedom today,” said Nguyen Duc Tuan, an editor at Lao Dong (Labor), which had 80,000 daily readers and sold for twelve cents a copy. “In the old days we had no news. You never would have read stuff like this.” He handed me a stack of papers. There were stories on slumping exports, rising inflation, urban power blackouts, rampant corruption, widespread drug use among teenagers, and another foreign airline—Qantas of Australia—ending service to Vietnam because of dwindling passenger loads.
A good presage. Still, no one would confuse Ha Noi Moi (New Hanoi) with the Times of London. The Party’s Commission of Culture and Ideol¬ogy met every Tuesday to decide what Vietnam’s people should be told that week. When the commission decided enough had been written about Princess Diana’s death, coverage ended overnight in every newspaper, even though she had not yet been buried. When the commission decided it wasn’t in the state’s interest to report that 1,000 Vietnamese troops had been sent to Laos to help the beleaguered communist government there put down an upcountry insurrection, not a word was carried in the media. (Vietnamese could have read about it in the Los Angeles Times or any one of a dozen foreign papers.) Ranking the top events of 1997—a year in which the Asian financial crisis began, Hong Kong was returned to China, El Nino assaulted the environment, and Russia signed a security pact with NATO—the Vietnam News Agency chose as the top story the thirtieth-anniversary celebration of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Number nine on the list was Cuba successfully staging the 14th Festival of World Youth and Students. It was as though the media lived in a dream bubble far removed from the realities of planet Earth.
In other developing countries where I’d worked, local journalists often turned out to be my best sources of information and most useful contacts. Vietnam was different. Reporters, who were licensed by the government, generally had chosen journalism because they wanted the security of a state job, not because they were curious about the world around them or had a calling to pluck a kernel of truth from a sack of lies. They knew lit¬tle about the workings of their country and almost nothing about the countries next door. That didn’t seem to bother them. In their jobs, they didn’t ask why, they didn’t challenge, nothing seemed to stir them to pub¬lic outrage. They couldn’t live on their $4o-per-month salaries, so they scurried from press conference to press conference to collect their phong bi, envelopes stuffed with 100,000 dong ($6.60) that hosts gave local jour¬nalists for showing up and writing a (favorable) story. When 5:00 P.M. ar¬rived, they were out the door. That saddened me, not only because they had missed all that is rewarding and worthy in an honorable profession but also because many of the young reporters I met were plenty bright yet didn’t seem to realize they’d put their brains on cruise control. I asked one reporter what her idea of a good story was, and she replied, “A story that is in harmony with the people.” Like her colleagues, she had bought the official line that to question or criticize was to undermine the spirit of na¬tionalism. My professional training had taught me precisely the opposite.
“Being a true journalist,” Le Kha Phieu explained to senior editors in Hanoi, “it is necessary… to reflect the thoughts and wishes of the public [and be] on the right political track oriented by the party.”

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