Zac Fleming: Media freedom in Vietnam stuck in the past

Radio NZ journalist Zac Fleming travelled to Vietnam to cover three stories, including a profile on two New Zealanders managing a bear sanctuary. (Photo: Zac Fleming)

Reporting in Vietnam has made me realise we should fight to keep media freedoms, thereby keeping Vietnam as an example of the past, and not the future.

OPINION: As far as media freedoms go, Vietnam is either stuck in the past or provides a glimpse into a potentially terrifying future.

The ruling Communist Party of Vietnam requires all journalists to submit an itinerary of unparalleled detail when applying for a visa, except for maybe North Korea; free press an oxymoron.

The Foreign Press Centre (FPC) is like a controlling editor, demanding to know where you want to go, who you want to talk to, what questions you want to ask. I even had to provide the make and model of the camera and microphone I was going to be using.

And it’s not all just a bureaucratic box-ticking tedious formality. The FPC reserves the right to decline journalists’ visa applications if it doesn’t like the stories they want to tell, or for any other reason.

Coffee growers Huong Hoa district

Ethnic-minority coffee growers learn how to use organic fertiliser at a World Vision aid project in the Hướng Hóa District, Quảng Trị Province, Vietnam. (Photo: Zac Fleming)

A quick search online shows some reporters have gambled and entered on a tourist visa, but getting caught doing that will get you kicked out of the country or reportedly imprisoned.

If you’re given a journalist visa, on arrival you’re met by an escort from the FPC, which the FPC describes as a “staffer [who] will serve as the interpreter and coordinator responsible for setting up and handling all aspects of the reporting trip”.

But their real purpose is transparently to make sure you don’t talk to people you’re not supposed to, and don’t go places you’re not supposed to.

I didn’t feel comfortable walking down the street with a camera like I do in New Zealand.

“I knew not to expect reporting as a foreign journalist in Vietnam to be like New Zealand, but the contrast shocked me.”

And that’s where the irony lies because, generalising, the Vietnamese people I encountered were much friendlier than your average Kiwi.

The overbearing, controlling Vietnam Government belies its constituents’ generally open, friendly demeanour.

I had to pay US$100 (NZ$145) a day for my FPC escort – NZ$1750 total for my trip – but got few discernible benefits except the occasional translation, which I was sceptical of; how could I be sure my escort, with likely his government’s best interests at heart, was telling me the truth?

Moon bear, Vietnam

A moon bear waits for medicine at the Animals Asia Bear Sanctuary in Tam Dao National Park, near Hanoi, Vietnam. (Photo: Zac Fleming)

The escort accompanied me on all three stories I reported on:

  • Following merino wool exports. Where does it go and what are the conditions like?
  • A profile on two Kiwis managing a bear sanctuary.
  • Following some of New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s aid money. More than NZ$2 million is given to World Vision to provide an aid programme for ethnic minorities living in poverty in central Vietnam. What does that NZ$2 million buy, and is it bringing those people out of poverty?

The escort never told me not to do something, not to talk to someone, or not to film something, but then again I didn’t try and do anything I hadn’t already told him I was planning on doing, so that’s not really surprising.

What was surprising was that at each story, despite the rigmarole of my visa, it still felt like the local authorities were confused or surprised I was there.

A staffer at the merino company told me the local authorities wanted to roll out a red carpet for my arrival, complete with girls and gifts.

Train street, Hanoi, Vietnam

Colloquially known as “train street”, still-in-use-tracks run through the centre of Hanoi with less than a metre between residences on either side. (Photo: Zac Fleming)

I was told they were concerned I was actually there to report on alleged corruption in the area and the welcome was their way of greasing me up.

A year ago they might not have cared much, but Vietnam is currently in the middle of a large corruption crackdown (which my FPC escort told me was about all optics to befriend the west and secure potential trade deals) which has resulted in the arrests of more than 70 government officials since September last year.

One was sentenced to death.

Thankfully the merino company convinced the local police I wasn’t there to try and expose their alleged corruption and the red carpet would be a waste of time and resources, so I avoided what would have almost definitely been the most awkward situation of the trip.

At the bear sanctuary, the local authorities reacted similarly. Two police officers arrived soon after I did, wanting to see my passport. This is where my FPC escort did come in handy – his presence allayed their concerns and they promptly went back to their station.

And while I was covering the World Vision story, my FPC escort met twice with local authorities in two days. I asked him repeatedly why and what was discussed, but he wouldn’t say.

Coffee producer group meeting, Vietnam

A coffee producer savings group meets at a local hall in the Hướng Hóa District, Quảng Trị Province, Vietnam. With the nearest bank a three-hour round trip, ethnic-minority households set up their own bank with the help of World Vision. (Photo: Zac Fleming)

I knew not to expect reporting as a foreign journalist in Vietnam to be like New Zealand, but the contrast shocked me.

Our complaints about the Official Information Act and perceived excessive secrecy of Government agencies seem trivial in comparison, which has led many people I talked with about my trip to suggest I be more appreciative of media freedoms in New Zealand.

I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it though.

We shouldn’t be appreciative of media freedoms; we should expect them.

Vietnam has made me realise, especially given the anti-media rhetoric from US President Donald Trump, that we should fight to keep them, thereby keeping Vietnam as an example of the past, and not the future. 

Zac FlemingCheckpoint Producer at Radio New Zealand, travelled to Vietnam supported by an Asia New Zealand Foundation media travel grant.

– Asia Media Centre

Stories by Zac Fleming, RNZ