The Vietnamese government must allow the media to operate freely. This is essential to the country's continued economic and political liberalisation, and to the Communist Party's efforts to regain the support of the people, which it needs for the sake of its own survival.
Vietnam's media landscape has changed significantly during the past five years and the Communist Party has lost much of its control over the industry with disastrous consequences.
There are now hundreds of official media outlets, all owned by the government, and all controlled by the Ministry of Information and Communications and its local counterparts. All senior editors are appointed, after careful vetting, by the government and the Communist Party. Vietnam also has some quasi-private outlets, which produce TV shows, host online news portals and publish local versions of foreign magazines such as Esquire and Cosmopolitan. But private operators are required to partner with a state entity, which means that they, too, must be mindful of censorship.
As the government continues to expand news categories that it considers to be sensitive - relations with China, land disputes, the medical conditions of top leaders - many media companies are providing increasingly sanitised news. Readers, particularly young ones, have deserted them in droves, looking for less propaganda.
Both circulation and the advertising revenues of the two most popular official dailies, Tuoi Tre and Thanh Nien, have dropped by almost two-thirds since 2008, according to highly placed sources at these newspapers. Other publications have turned tabloid, featuring sensational scandals in an attempt to stem the reader haemorrhage.
Instead, the Vietnamese public is turning to foreign news sources, which are easily accessible online. Facebook and social media have also blossomed: Some intellectuals and former party members have their own blogs on which they openly criticise the government, attracting tens of thousands of visitors every day. Although the government has imposed Internet firewalls, workarounds are well-known and readily available. Vietnam has one of the highest rates of Internet penetration among countries with comparable per capita incomes. But the emergence of alternative sources of information is a problem in its own right, because these are not uniformly reliable. The public, including the intelligentsia, has grown so distrustful of state media and the state itself that it is too quick to accept accounts criticising the government as true, even when they are not well substantiated.
Many books have been published in recent years claiming to reveal state secrets on virtually every major national issue - from the origins of the Communist Party to the
epic battle against the French at Dien Bien Phu, from China's real designs on Vietnam to Ho Chi Minh's private life. The recent Den Cu, by Tran Dinh, questions Uncle Ho's nationalist credentials. It also claims he was directly involved in the forced land redistribution programme of 1953-56, which killed more than 170,000 people, and may have attended the show trial of some wealthy landowners.
The party and the government tend not to refute such allegations. Instead, they insist on maintaining outdated forms of control and micromanaging trivial issues, such as the depth of the decolletage on singers' dresses. This reflects their lack of confidence, and it undermines the party's credibility, including on vital national interests such as combating corruption and curbing China's regional ambitions.
Corruption is a major issue, contributing to Vietnam's huge public-sector debt, high rates of non-performing loans and inefficient state enterprises. (Public debt is rapidly approaching 65 per cent of GDP, the limit set by the government.) And the party, the government and Parliament have declared that fighting corruption is a top priority. But after so many years of media control, people have grown too wary of the authorities to give them any credit. When senior officials and corporate chieftains are arrested for graft, the public assumes it is the result of factional score-settling.
The lack of media transparency has also been a problem in Vietnam's tussle with our centuries-old enemy, China. In May, the Chinese government moved an oil-drilling rig off the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea to inside Vietnam's exclusive economic zone. Yet, the Vietnamese government's initial response struck many of us as meek: The foreign minister called the move "brazen" at first, but then the ministry spokesman simply repeated over and over again that "China must withdraw from Vietnam's undisputed maritime territory".
Reporting by the mainstream media was also muted, which meant the public discussion was dominated by the extreme nationalism of anti-China demonstrators and virulent online petitions by academics and former officials, including a Vietnamese ambassador to China. Speculation ran wild on blogs that some untoward deal had been struck, with frequent reference to the infamous Chengdu meeting, a secret encounter in 1990, during which the Vietnamese Communist Party and the Chinese Communist Party are thought to have undertaken a mutual protection pact that involved making Vietnam more dependent on China economically and politically.
Alternative sources of information are not the antidote to state control of the mainstream media. They are welcome, but they cannot be relied upon alone. Especially in Vietnam's existential fight against corruption and China, the traditional Vietnamese media must be allowed to freely disseminate timely and impartial information. Vietnam has many experienced journalists who have been cowed by censorship for too long and want nothing more but to do their jobs properly.
The Constitution already provides for full press freedom; it must be implemented. Opening up the media would help our leaders win back the trust of the people, which they need if they hope to advance Vietnam's main goals. Freedom of the press is good for the country, and it is good for the regime.
NEW YORK TIMES