In Vietnam, It's All the News The State Says Is Fit to Print
HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM — While drinking the bitter tea commonly served in Hanoi, the press official winces when the newspaper Tuoi Tre (Youth) is mentioned.
According to several sources a high-ranking member of Vietnam's internal security department, he has reasons to dislike the periodical.
Five years ago, it published stories that strayed outside of the ruling Communist Party's guidelines.
But with a new editor at the helm, Tuoi Tre's critical tone has fallen an octave. The paper has been fulfilling its mandate of promoting state ideology.
Critics of Vietnam's human rights record periodically highlight restrictions on the media, all of which are state-owned, as a sign of political repression.
These days, they are rallying again after President Clinton last month decided to waive a law that served as a bottleneck to trade between the US and Vietnam.
Human rights advocates argue that the Jackson-Vanick amendment - which imposes trade restrictions on communist governments - provides important political leverage. And they are expected to challenge the president's position this June in Congress.
Vietnamese journalists are also listing their grievances - privately.
They have been instructed to expose corruption as part of a campaign against "social evils" associated with the new market economy.
Yet this mandate seems to apply only to low-ranking officials, many reporters complain.
"We get awards for exposing improper behavior, as long as we don't expose too much," says one reporter, who asked that his name not be used.
Reports of scandals published by the press are usually vetted by and handed down from the government, another reporter says.
Last October, Nguyen Hoang Linh, editor of Doanh Nghiep, was arrested after his newspaper detailed an alleged Customs Department scam involving high-ranking officials. But such instances are rare. Mr. Linh was the first editor in years to be arrested for revealing state secrets. Most senior editors are party members who practice self-censorship.
Many Vietnamese journalists are frustrated by this system of self-censorship.
"There's no drive to get the story. You go out and interview seven people, but then your story is printed with only one quote. So the next time you research a story, you're not going to put as much effort into it," says a former editor at Vietnam Investment Review.
Many Vietnamese reporters and editors, however, say that press freedoms may be widened this year. They are pinning their hopes on new Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, who was named to the post in September.
"[Mr.] Khai is young and liberal. He favors a more open society," says one reporter, who asked not to be identified.
He adds that press liberalization and economic reforms go hand in hand. "When doi moi [economic renovation] began in 1986, newspapers underwent a reform process too," the reporter says.
"But that was in the beginning, when there was a push to open the country to the world. Then reforms started to drag," he adds.
"This year, the country is expected to undergo renewed economic reforms," the reporter continues. "Khai realizes that many government policies need to be liberalized, and that includes policies concerning the press."
But Vietnam's leaders work by consensus, and Mr. Khai may be restricted in loosening press controls. The party's new general secretary, Le Kha Phieu, has told journalists not to write too many critical and negative reports.