How Vietnam manipulated TV

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I have become accustomed now to seeing our television news programs anchored from Geneva, or Moscow, or Rome, or London, even when the news justification for it is incomprehensible. I have even become reconciled to watching the resident weatherman tell me from somewhere in Europe what my weather will be on the East Coast of the United States.

But the all-network coverage from Ho Chi Minh City, which some of us remember as Saigon, to mark its communist seizure 10 years ago has left me far less comfortable.

Once again, as they did so often during the Vietnam war, Hanoi's tough and clever rulers have attempted to manipulate American public opinion for their own ends, and they have skillfully sought to use American television as their instrument for so doing.

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The parade they staged to mark their Saigon victory was pure show business, its waving red flags, its tanks, its planes, its marching thousands designed to dominate American television screens -- which it did.

There were programmed Vietnamese officials, exuding smiling incomprehension over American failure to recognize their regime and over Washington's reluctance to send their threadbare economy the aid that might revitalize it.

But nowhere dramatically portrayed was there the Vietnamese occupation of Kampuchea. No pictures did I see of those Vietnamese who dare to question the regime, and who, for such daring, have been tossed into work camps. No on-camera interviews did I watch with some of the thousands who are being held in ``reeducation'' camps.

The reason is simple: The Vietnamese orchestrated the scene, they approved and disapproved what American television crews might film, they accompanied reporters on assignment, and they flatly refused to let television teams shoot footage unfavorable to the communist regime.

News correspondents did what they could to inject some perspective. There was one report reminding us that although the My Lai massacre was a shameful scar on American history never to be forgotten, the communists were guilty of worse in such cities as Hue.

But without moving pictures, a story gets short shrift on television. For all the promotional hullabaloo about the Vietnamese permitting live transmission from Ho Chi Minh City, the film we got came from cameras peeping through a keyhole only at what the Vietnamese wanted us to see.

What the Vietnamese cleverly engaged us in was the celebration of a peace that has brought no freedom, of a war's end that has meant misery for many thousands. The North Vietnamese regime, discarding even those Viet Cong leaders who dreamed foolish dreams of power after victory, have imposed on the south a system so intolerable that it has triggered a massive exodus. At one stage, more than 40,000 South Vietnamese a month were putting to sea in leaky, overloaded boats rather than live under Hanoi's communist rule. Often their chances of survival were slender. Many of them perished at sea. But a slim hope of freedom was better than what lay behind.

Once the North Vietnamese took over, they executed ``war criminals,'' detaining many citizens who have not been heard from since. Thousands remain in the ``reeducation'' camps, where conditions are often harsh. Many among them are former South Vietnamese officials and Army officers. Included are chaplains and clergy from both Buddhist and Christian groups.

In society at large there is extensive surveillance by party-appointed block wardens. Nobody can travel without an identity card. If a Vietnamese wants to change his residence or job, the authorities must approve. The government controls the press, publications, and exhibitions. Meetings to criticize government actions are prohibited.

With such a reprehensible record, it is small wonder that Vietnam, eager though it is for international recognition, has been unable to bring itself to join any international human rights organizations. The appeals of Amnesty International either to try or to free the imprisoned thousands have fallen on ears totally closed. Nor does the Vietnamese government permit the existence in Vietnam of domestic groups concerned with human rights.

This is part of the 10-year record that was not featured in the television footage from a country the North Vietnamese say they have liberated, but which many see as a land far from free.

John Hughes was editor of the Monitor from 1970 to 1979 and assistant US secretary of state for public affairs from 1982 through 1984.

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