Vietnam: A Mass Media Explosion


David G. Marr

If a Vietnamese Rip Van Winkle were to wake up today after a fifteen-year sleep, one of the first things to stun him would be advertising - whether on huge billboards, multi-coloured newspaper inserts, television and radio spots, or T-shirts worn by pretty young women passing out product samples. After a few days of canvassing the mass media, he would wonder how previously taboo topics like crime, violence, sex, scandal, corruption and occult practices had come to dominate many outlets. Most surprising might be the top circulation gutter tabloids owned by the Ministry of Public Security, or the pornographic videos smuggled in from Bangkok. None of this could have been imagined in the early 1980s, when newspapers featured stories on collective farm pig yields, the radio continued to play marching songs of the anti-American struggle, and television ran Soviet and Bulgarian films to a few thousand sets in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

All mass media enterprises in Vietnam remain state-owned, and Communist Party cadres occupy most management positions, yet the new economic imperative to compete and to make a profit (or at least not rely too heavily on subsidies) compels every media practitioner to look constantly for ways to attract larger audience share and garner more advertising revenue. This competition fuels a frantic search for both novel content and innovative forms of projection, with foreign inspiration evident at every turn. Periodically the Party denounces poisonous foreign influences and uses the media to publicise bulldozers crushing illegal videos, CDs and tape cassettes, but such crackdowns are ephemeral partly because officials at various levels are involved in the networks which distribute these commodities.

Recently many Vietnamese were amused when the General Secretary of the Communist party, Le Kha Phieu, berated media executives for allowing the profit motive to lure them away from politics in favour of crass sensationalism. Of course, Mr Phieu's definition of 'politics' is the Party line, which is incapable of selling papers or air time. However, the media do experiment with news and commentary formats that attract audiences providing no one mentions 'socialism', 'dictatorship of the proletariat' or 'anti-peaceful evolution'. Thus, investigative reporters compete with each other to expose corrupt cadres, gross mismanagement and cover-ups. Many newspapers feature 'forum' columns which declare a particular social issue open for debate and reprint a fairly wide spectrum of reader responses. Surprisingly frank on-the-street interviews are occasionally aired on television and radio. A few TV documentaries are causing audiences to wake up and take notice. Panel discussions that pit academic experts against bureaucrats can become quite intense. Media enterprises now enjoy immediate access to a diversity of international news services. The Internet came to Vietnam in January, after five years of expanding email access via an Australian National University computer server.

None of these media transformations threatens the Party's grip on power, but they do often stimulate socio-cultural, conceptual and behavioural changes that Vietnam's elderly leaders are incapable of comprehending, much less dealing with constructively.

WATCHPOINT: As the Asian economic meltdown seeps into Vietnam, watch to see if declining advertising revenues and growing citizen disenchantment with buccaneer capitalism trigger more focused media criticism of the status quo.


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