State-controlled media in Vietnam are looking more and more to private citizens’ postings on social media as sources of objective information and for leads to news stories, according to Central Propaganda Department chief Vo Van Thuong, speaking on June 20 at a press conference in Hanoi.
Dissident bloggers and independent journalists told RFA's Vietnamese Service that they welcomed the move, pointing to social media’s capacity for publishing timely and updated information unslowed by mechanisms of government approval.
“If someone knows something, they can post it immediately without running it through the censors,” said freelance writer Vu Binh, who once served a seven-year prison term on charges of espionage for criticizing Vietnam’s human rights record in a letter sent to the U.S. Congress.
“Also, most of the people who post have many followers, and they are known for being honest and objective [in what they write],” Binh said.
These writers’ objectivity and fairness in analysis has attracted large numbers of readers, and this is what has now drawn the attention of Vietnam’s official media, he added.
“State media know that if they simply keep to their role as a propaganda outlet, they will lose their readers, so they are now searching for new information on social networks, and for unbiased discussions that they can write about,” he said.
Questions of truth
Speaking to reporters on June 20, propaganda chief Vo Van Thuong said that because news outlets managed by the state will sometimes post an item and then quickly take it down, readers often question the truthfulness of what they have read.
What is considered “objective” in state-run news depends on the guidance of the government’s propaganda office, and more finally on the orders of Vietnam’s communist party, though, Binh said.
“[Whatever is allowed] is what benefits the current regime,” he said.
“Vietnamese media have been locked in a cage for too long,” said Da Nang-based independent journalist and blogger Truong Duy Nhat. “Set them free!”
“State media really are being led now by social media,” he said.
In spite of government controls, state media still have an important role to play in the modern digital age, said Nguyen Duc An, senior lecturer in journalism at Bournemouth University in the U.K.
“Social media are working against tradition,” An wrote in a recent article for Vietnam’s Tuoi Tre News.
“State-run newspapers will often filter information before publication, whereas Facebook is a place where people have the right to publish first and filter afterward,” he said.
“People also have a herd-like habit which makes it easier for them to believe things that others believe, because it makes them feel safer ... They cannot, and sometimes do not want to, hear opposite opinions,” he said.
Call for dialogue
Vietnam's ruling Communist Party has recently called for open dialogue with the people to hear "different opinions" on how to run the country, but observers have questioned whether the government is willing to listen to criticism and embrace change.
During a recent online conference, Thuong said his department is awaiting guidance from the Central Party Secretariat on how to organize public discussions, adding that the Communist Party "is not afraid" of dialogue and debate.
In the 63 years since assuming power in North Vietnam and 42 years since taking control of the entire country, the Communist Party has been the sole political party and only source of official ideology in Vietnam.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Emily Peyman. Written in English by Richard Finney.