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Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
The Viet Nam Generation Big Book

Volume 5 Number 1-4
March 1994

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Observations on the Current Status of the Mass Media in Indochina

John W. Williams, Principia College

The current status of the mass media in Indochina was one of my key interests while a member of the most recent delegation sponsored by the United States--Indochina Reconciliation Project to visit the region. Our month-long study tour (July 26-August 23, 1992) took us throughout Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

We met with scholars and officials at universities in Hanoi, Hue, Da Nang, Ho Chi Minh City, and Phnom Penh and with social science research institutes in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Vientiane; officials with various ministries (including foreign affairs, information, culture and education) and mass organizations (such as youth federation and women's union) in all three countries; American diplomatic personnel (including U.S. ambassadors) in Cambodia and Laos; United Nations officials in Cambodia; foreign reporters and officials with nongovernmental organizations in Hanoi, Da Nang, Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh and Bangkok; provincial officials in Hue and Quang Nam-Da Nang provinces; and numerous informal unofficial contacts with merchants, farmers, students, former Viet Cong officers, and former officers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Most spoke either English or French, although we frequently had a translator available. We watched television, listened to the radio, went to the movies and collected newspapers. Admittedly, our information was limited by our ability to read, speak or understand Vietnamese, Khmer or Lao. Furthermore, our information was filtered by translation and ideology. Nevertheless, in the language of diplomats, everyone was "frank" in talking with us.

I was able to make a number of initial observations about the state of mass media in the three socialist countries of Indochina--Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. All three remain socialist states, at least in theory, under one party--the communist party--rule. All three nations, like their counterparts in Eastern Europe, are undergoing significant economic change. The most relevant model (as referred to by Vietnamese officials) is that of the People's Republic of China. Vietnam is undergoing a massive economic "renovation" in its shift to a market economy, coupled with an "open door" policy toward foreign investment. The flow of foreign investment is inhibited, according to the Vietnamese, by the continuing American economic embargo. The economy is in a deep slump, with twenty percent (or higher) unemployment and the collapse of state enterprises and cooperatives. The Vietnamese lost their Soviet subsidy of seventy percent of their national budget. Nevertheless, the Communist Party retains tight control of the political side of Vietnamese life. And, like their northern model, the leadership is appropriately labeled a gerontocracy.

Cambodia is in a different situation. Pending national elections by May 1993 under the Paris agreements, the nation is under the administration of UNTAC, the United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia. UNTAC consists of more than 18,000 troops from several dozen nations and hundreds of UN civilian administrators. The country is controlled by several factions, the two most significant being Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, and the "State of Cambodia." That latter, known as SOC or the "Phnom Penh regime, is the Hun Sen regime that was installed by the Vietnamese when they invaded and defeated the Khmer Rouge in 1979. At first one is tempted to call SOC the "government," however, both legally and practically, they are not the official government. That power resides with the Supreme National Council, a body of representatives of the leading factions established by the Paris agreements. As if to make the distinction clear, the U.S. "ambassador," Charles Twining, is officially the Special Representative to the Supreme National Council.

SOC, like the other factions, administers a section of the country. SOC happens to administer the largest area, including the capital of Phnom Penh. Thus, it has the ability to appoint ministers and bureaucrats, who administer the normal significant functions of government within its territory. UN officials oversee the administration of key ministries, including the foreign, justice and interior ministries. In spite of the legal niceties, SOC is the effective government for the largest portion of Cambodia.

Laos, like Vietnam, is experimenting with economic reform, though in a much more limited and controlled manner. There is an extensive small scale market economy. However, the Communist Party maintains sole political control. Dissent, even from within the party, appears not to be tolerated. There are reports of three governmental officials who publicly questioned the direction of the party last year and, as a result, are now in internal exile in the northeast.

Each of the three countries has either a ministry of information and culture, or a separate ministry of information. The SOC recently separated the functions of the two, assigning control of mass media to the ministry of information, with the exceptions of film and video.

All three countries (including SOC) are patterned on a traditional socialist one-party system, each with a "fatherland front" or coalition of mass organizations. Although officially one of several mass organizations, the Communist Party is the lead organization. All senior officials are members of the Party. However, during recent national elections in Vietnam, non-party members ran and were elected to the National Assembly. Of course, the party still maintains a majority in the Assembly.

With the exception of Cambodia, where provincial-level government is collapsing and being replaced by the various political factions (some of which are noncommunist), provincial officials are quite powerful. Provincial and local government in Vietnam is organized around people's committees. With the budget collapse of the central government in Vietnam, provincial leaders are exercising growing independence, including defiance of central government policies. For example, we made sure to always obtain both national and provincial clearance for any travel. And, in direct violation of national policy, we were stopped and "shaken down" for taking pictures near a former US military installation. In Laos, provincial governors, as before the revolution in 1975, hold extensive power and local autonomy.

This background is relevant in understanding the structure and nature of Indochinese mass media. The central government, through the respective ministry of information directly controls and operates national television and radio. Provincial governments control local radio, where it exists. Newspapers are published by government ministries, such as police or military, and mass organizations. The Party, the trade union, the youth federation, and the women's union have their own papers. Municipalities, such as the Vientiane municipal government, have their own newspapers. Local governmental agencies, such as the police, also publish papers. Especially in the provinces, the newspapers are monitored by the local authorities or members of the People's Committees.

Journalism education is a new concept in the region. The newest department at the University of Hanoi is the journalism faculty. Otherwise, the study of journalism, radio/television and mass communication, as found in American institutions, does not exist. It appears that such programs are still a luxury for the universities of these three nations.

The flow of international news is practically uninhibited. The most readily available English-language paper is the Bangkok Post. It is followed by Thailand's other English-language daily, The Nation. Street hawkers in Ho Chi Minh City and in booths around Phnom Penh sell Le Monde, the International Herald Tribune, and the South China Morning News. Phnom Penh now has two weekly English-language papers, the Cambodia Times and the Phnom Penh Post, both in tabloid format. The Vietnamese government publishes a weekly English-language tabloid. There is no locally based foreign language press in Laos.

International radio, especially shortwave, is readily available in all three counties. The BBC and the Voice of America were most frequently mentioned as sources of information. We did not ask government officials about their response to the American proposal for a Radio Asia, patterned on the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty model. Like Radio Marti, broadcast to Cuba, the proposal may harm diplomatic relations rather than facilitate democracy.

International television is also readily available. Laotians, many of whom live in the river downs along the Mekong, have ready access to local Thai television broadcasts from directly across the river. The Thai and Lao (lowland Lao) languages and cultures are very similar. Satellite-distributed television is available in both Vietnam and Cambodia. The leading distributor is Star Television out of Hong Kong. It broadcasts BBC 24-hour news, MTV and Chinese movies.

Land-line telephone communication is almost nonexistent. This has stimulated a boom in cellular telephones, especially in Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh. The technology is not dependent on the inefficiencies and inadequacies of telephone lines. It is entirely possible, especially in these two cities, that we will witness a technological leap from no telecommunications to cellular, without an intermediate step in wire-based technology.

International telecommunication exists but is limited. The US has recently lifted restrictions on direct telecommunications between Vietnam and the States. The fax machine is ubiquitous and reliable, though expensive. I sent one-page faxes from Ho Chi Minh City ($12.00 US) and Phnom Penh ($22.00 US). The cost is based on transmission time, which is affected by the transmission technology. I noted that the operator made and kept a copy of my fax in Vietnam.

Traditional cinema, the responsibility of the culture ministry, no longer exists in these countries. The cost of making films and the availability of resources (such as film stock, equipment, processing) have propelled the Vietnamese and Cambodian film industries into video technology. We noted what looked like traditional movie houses, along with massive, oversize billboards, throughout all three countries. We attempted to ask for the "movies," the "cinema," the "theater," in both English and French. Only when someone suggested "video" did we get a response. In the movie houses, we discovered wide-screen video projectors, playing local versions of music videos and feature "films." The "films," all recent releases, were made with video technology. Most of the videos are produced locally by private companies. However, as Cambodian ministry officials acknowledged, scripts and final tapes are reviewed by the government.

The phenomenon of video has led to several developments. The first is the not unexpected flood of foreign video cassettes and bootlegged copies. Government officials, especially in Laos, are concerned about the effects that unrestricted distribution of videos will have on their culture. They, of course, did not mention the parallel impact on politics. All three nations had numerous video sales shops. In Laos, where the fewest people spoke either English or French, the shops were identified by the letters "VDO" which when spoken quickly translate into "video." The Vietnamese advertise "TiVi."

The second is the development of video parlors. These are most often outdoor restaurants or cafes featuring wide-screen televisions playing the latest in local music videos or Western releases. Walking along Le Loi, the main street on the southern bank of the Perfume River in Hue, we noted hundreds of people sitting on lawn chairs, mesmerized in front of dozens of video screens. Throughout Phnom Penh are scores of "hole-in-the-wall" cafes and restaurants with video sets blaring. Proprietors place screens across the entrances so patrons must pay to enter and see the screens.

We were curious about the impact of international media on the monopoly over political control by the one-party state. There appears to be no control over the availability of international news sources and entertainment. The ready availability of international news sources, in the form of non-vernacular print and broadcasting, is generally tolerated. In Cambodia, for example, SOC officials appear far more tolerant of the two English-language papers than the vernacular press. The one area of concern voiced by officials is the foreign video, rarely a direct source of news or political information. The concern is over the impact on culture and cultural values.

It is clear that domestic media, including video production, is still heavily monitored or controlled, hence subject to political censorship. This is in spite of the growing economic openness. For example, the Vietnamese revised their constitution this past year. National officials pointedly called the changes a "revision," rather than a new constitution. The most significant change was Chapter Two, Economic System (Articles 15 through 29), which codifies the shift to a market economy. Article 69 in Chapter Five on Fundamental Rights and Duties of the Citizen protects freedoms associated with the press: "The citizen shall enjoy freedom of opinion and speech, freedom of the press, the right to be informed, and the right to assemble, form associations and hold demonstrations in accordance with the provisions of the law." How does one explain this apparent dichotomy?

The answer may rest in the extent of foreign-language literacy. The vast majority of citizens do not read, write or understand English, French, Thai or other foreign languages. The exception, probably limited to the urban centers, is Chinese. The vernacular press and sources of information and entertainment are heavily controlled or monitored by the single-party state. While all three countries are experiencing economic revolutions, they maintain tight political control, much like their neighbor China. The protection for the continuing political monopoly by the single party is the absence of foreign language literacy throughout the general population.

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