Black-Market Videos Under Siege


A CRACKDOWN on black-market video in Vietnam has sent a strong signal on how far Soviet-style glasnost, or openness, will be tolerated. A campaign by the Communist Party to rid Vietnam of illegal videotapes and players began last month, and already at least one video-offender party member has been kicked out.

``The spread of videotapes and music of an unhealthy, decadent nature has reached an alarming rate and seriously affected the young generation,'' states Culture Minister Tran Van Phac, considered a hard-liner in the party's Central Committee.

The current campaign is part of a bigger crackdown on the arts and press which has partly reversed two years of liberalization.

Of an estimated 40,000 video players in Vietnam, about half are unregistered, reports the party's newspaper, The People. Outlawed players are often used by entrepreneurs to show videos in restaurants and membership clubs, which have sprung up since 1986 when a new leniency toward private enterprise began.

The worst offenders, however, are officials who use registered players to show Hollywood films, music videos, and pornography flicks to paying audiences. Violators have been uncovered in such offices as the Ministry of Interior and an animated cartoon business. ``Commercial video screening is the best trade for becoming rich quickly,'' said Mr. Phac.

About 200 military families have been charged with running 86 video parlors near Ho Chi Minh City. Punishment ranged from a warning to party expulsion. Thirteen families were criticized for allowing their children to work as parking attendants for video-goers. In July, the defense ministry forbade officers and soldiers from showing videos.

Videotapes judged as ``decadent, obscene, or violent'' will be banned, says Phac, even though some have ``attracted large audiences who claimed that films provided by the central censor committee were boring.'' Such videotaped movies as ``Rambo'' and ``Full Metal Jacket'' circulate widely in Vietnam, but it is unclear whether the crackdown would ban such films. One video shown officially in many cities last year was the Miss Universe contest.

Also banned are videos deemed ``reactionary,'' which often refers to anything from pre-1975 South Vietnam society or from noncommunist nations. A 1987 Politburo policy banned all but ``socialist Vietnamese culture,'' and opposed works that ``sow pessimism and a depraved life style.''

Hanoi officials were alarmed recently at the popularity of a multi-part video program smuggled in from Hong Kong. It extolled the virtues of the Chinese at a time when Vietnam is trying to rally people to defend the country from its large neighbor.

Most videotapes are smuggled in from Thailand through Cambodia. ``Cultural teams'' now police what is called video fever.

Since 1986, Hanoi has followed the Soviet Union in promoting economic restructuring and openness in culture and media.

But a conservative party faction, fearing ``negative phenomena,'' has tried to slow political and economic changes. The more Westernized south, for instance, has raced ahead of the north in starting small private businesses. And many writers have published indirect criticism of the party leadership or individual leaders.

Press controls have been tightened, and restrictions made on which foreign books could be translated into Vietnamese. The most dramatic change for most Vietnamese, however, was the curbing of what the interior minister calls ```black videocassette fever.''

``Economic errors can be overcome in five to seven years if we really make an all-out effort,'' he says. ``But cultural and ideological blunders may take generations to rectify.''

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