Cablegate: Keeping the Lid On Freedom of the Press And

Published: Fri 30 May 2003 08:56 AM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: N/A
REF: A) HCMC 0342 B) 02 HCMC 1170 C) HCMC 0156
1. (SBU) Summary: Despite a flurry of economic reforms and
trade liberalization heralded by the signing of the
Bilateral Trade Agreement over a year ago, Ho Chi Minh
City's press reporting and cultural programs remain mired
in self-censorship, media "guidelines" and an arbitrary
permit process that strongly limit the freedom of
expression for thoughtful writers, journalists, moviemakers
and theater directors. During the past 15 months, as Post
has sponsored its first live cultural performances and
broadened its contacts within media organizations and the
artistic community, we too have experienced the gauntlet of
obstacles created by groups of small-minded ideologues.
End summary.
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2. (U) Ho Chi Minh City TV (HTV) is government-owned and
the only local TV station in HCMC. Domestic news programs
follow a time-honored tradition of airing mostly positive
stories about courtesy calls, government-organized seminars
and conferences, and visiting dignitaries. World news
visual coverage has generally been fairly open, drawing on
BBC, CNN and other news services. However, there is no
guarantee that the Vietnamese voiceover will bear any
relationship to what the viewer sees on the TV screen.
Coverage of the war in Iraq was one-sided. There was no
reporting about Iraqis celebrating Saddam's fall or
toppling statues of him, let alone welcoming the coalition
forces. Entertainment programs are of fair quality for a
developing country, but lack anything approaching
contemporary political satire or serious talk shows about
sensitive issues.
3. (U) Like the rest of Vietnam, the press in HCMC has
ownership roots in the local government or Communist Party.
A handful of the city's numerous newspapers and magazines
are considered serious news sources. They must adhere to
unwritten guidelines, avoiding criticism of the government
and the Party except in particular cases, such as certain
corruption trials.
4. (SBU) A vivid example is the recent dismissal of the
editor-in-chief of the "Tuoi Tre" newspaper, Mr. Le Van
Nui. "Tuoi Tre" is owned by the Youth Union of HCMC, a
government-sanctioned mass organization. Mr. Nui had been
under a cloud of suspicion ever since his paper published a
poll during President Clinton's visit in 2000. This poll
asked readers to rate the leaders they most admired. The
results showed that Mr. Clinton was more popular than Ho
Chi Minh. Authorities stripped Mr. Nui of his press
association membership about a year ago, although he kept
his top position at the paper until this month. Then "Tuoi
Tre's" focus on top GVN leaders implicated in a well-
publicized criminal trial (the "Nam Cam" case, which opened
this April) seemed to renew official interest in Mr. Nui's
departure. He has been replaced by a local book publisher,
Mr. Le Hoang, who is respected for his business skills but
who has no journalism experience. Mr. Nui, in the
meantime, has been sidelined into the directorship of Tuoi
Tre News Group's real estate and land management firm.
5. (SBU) Coverage/commentary on the Iraq war in HCMC was
negative, with the daily press running graphic photos of
civilian casualties and editorial content focusing on the
"unwelcome American aggression." Sources have told Post
that media editors received written guidelines on Iraq war
coverage. Reporters and editors have said they know the
real story of the coalition's victory, but were forbidden
to report it.
6. (SBU) The best-known recent case is the expulsion of
film star Don Duong from the actors' union. Technically,
he had violated a government rule for appearing in foreign
films: submitting the script in advance for approval. Don
Duong and his family were subjected to police questioning
and harassment for his "betrayal of the homeland" in movies
such as "Green Dragon" (life in a Vietnamese refugee
resettlement camp in the U.S.) and "We Were Soldiers Once"
(a balanced portrayal of soldiers' lives on both sides
during the early days of the Vietnam War). Blackballed by
the film association, his children taunted and intimidated
at school, menacing phone calls, "invitations" to the local
police station, and vandalism at his sister's restaurant
finally drove Don Duong and his family to emigrate to the
U.S. (ref A). The orchestrated media attacks and forced
unemployment were pointed reminders to his fellow actors:
stick to pure entertainment or politically correct drama.
7. (U) Two recent screen releases have mildly criticized
the socio-cultural realities of contemporary Saigon. "Gai
Nhay" ("Sensitive Girl"), a film about the exploitation of
bar girls, implicitly criticizes the poverty that drives
them to that lifestyle and the callousness of a system that
would create such an underclass. Sex for drug money, heavy
drinking, and slimy nouveau riche Vietnamese are also
featured. "Luoi Troi" ("Tangled in the Sky's Web") took
the Golden Kite prize at Vietnam's Film Festival this year.
It deals with the corruption of individual Party members
and hints at institutional flaws, but stops short of
explicitly criticizing the government. It may have been a
critical success at the Film Festival, but its commercial
run has been much shorter than "Gai Nhay".
8. (SBU) The GVN recently moved to allow the establishment
of private film companies. To say there has not been a mad
rush to take advantage of this "opening" would be an
understatement. The start-up process for the first
company(ies) would likely be unpredictable and time-
consuming. Post believes that any company brave enough to
wade through the application forms and obtain a license,
would certainly not risk losing its investment in order to
focus on social or political issues.
9. (U) In the words of one contact, media organizations
and the film industry may criticize "below the waist"
(lower-ranking members of the Party or government), but not
take aim at the head (national leaders, ideology etc.)
10. (SBU) Serious theater in HCMC is virtually non-
existent. The British Council sponsored a contemporary
version of "Romeo and Juliet" last year. Street people
depicted actual characters, but the setting was blandly
anyplace. (Post Note: Homelessness and abandonment are
increasing social problems in HCMC's growing metropolis of
8 million, but absent any specific country references, few
Vietnamese in the audience recognized the subtle message
here. End note.) Playwrights, theater directors and
actors practice self-censorship, since all performances
must be reviewed by a board of censors prior to the formal
opening. Contacts tell us that if they wish to perform a
small play or dance performance that may have daring or
sensitive content, they simply call the performance "a
party" and the audience is by invitation only.
11. (SBU) One prominent artist was visited by the police
after leading a group of cultural performers to the U.S.
Another colleague on the trip had made disparaging remarks
about the Vietnamese Government, and so the nominal
"leader" was called to account. Understandably rattled
that the GVN would hold an individual responsible for the
conduct of an entire group, this artist was about to give
up on ever traveling overseas again. As months have
passed, it now looks as though this contact will be able to
resume international travel. However, the avant-garde
performances this individual is noted for Q with no
political content Q are still under increased scrutiny.
12. (U) On the more humorous side, one traveling
Vietnamese artist has been quoted in the Western media as
saying that since his works are so sophisticated, they are
"beyond the comprehension" of the cultural censors, so they
don't come and interfere.
13. (SBU) Pop singers tend not to have problems if they
pay the proper licensing fees (indexed very high for profit
events) and submit recordings of their music for review.
One prominent singer, however, faces frequent harassment
for his sexual orientation and for a well-known (by word of
mouth) denunciation of the GVN, which he made from a stage
in Hue several years ago.
14. (SBU) There are virtually no songs on HCMC Radio
(government controlled) with political overtones. HCMC
Radio now bans a collection of songs by Trinh Cong Son, a
popular anti-war/anti-U.S. activist during the 1960s and
1970s, because listeners have been loosely interpreting his
lyrics to include repression under the current government.
15. (U) Classical music concerts by the Ho Chi Minh City
Symphony take place on the 9th of every month. Post has
noted that performing excerpts from classical standards Q
including some excerpts from Bach/Mozart/Brahms requiems
and masses Q draws no particular attention.
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16. (U) Photo and art exhibits with non-revolutionary or
non-liberation themes are rare. In the spring 2002, a
British- sponsored photojournalism workshop had its exhibit
closed by the censors during the opening ceremony. Several
photos which portrayed the nitty-gritty realism of street
life in HCMC were unacceptable to the culture censors.
17. (SBU) Post has been able to sponsor two exhibits
related to the September 11 terrorist attacks ("Headlines
of History" poster show in September 2002 and "9/11: View
from Ground Zero" in February 2003). These required an
exhaustive searches for willing venues and a painstaking
effort to detail to the censors the contents of the
exhibits (photos, translations of each newspaper headline
and caption etc.). Even then, whether or not our co-
sponsors would be issued the appropriate permits was in
doubt to the last minute. So while we have nudged open the
door, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to arrange
exhibits relating to American democracy and civil rights.
18. (SBU) PA25, which is the cultural censorship branch of
the Ministry of Public Affairs ("the culture police"), is
often called into action. In film actor Don Duong's case,
PA25 officers were the ones who brought him in for
questioning. They tried to intimidate an apology and
confession out of him. On a recent trip to the central
coast, when the People's Committee of Khanh Hoa Province
did not want the Consul General to meet with professors and
students at the local university, teachers' training
college, and school of music and art, PA25 was dispatched
to tell at least one rector and his senior staff that they
"should find it inconvenient" to be available for the CG's
appointment. Other confirmed interlocutors were suddenly
summoned by PA25 to a meeting at the People's Committee
just before the CG's scheduled arrival at their
institution. On another occasion in Binh Thuan Province,
public security police and the People's Committee external
relations officer jointly tried to prevent the DPO from
visiting an ethnic Cham princess and her husband who run a
small tourist museum, claiming the DPO needed prior
19. (SBU) The gatekeepers for HCMC's flow of information
and the performing and visual arts remain formidable. The
local Department of Culture and Information, the Party
Commission on Ideology and Culture, the Peoples Aid
Committee and the Ministry of Public Security continue to
be narrow-minded, arbitrary and obstructionist when
deciding which artistic work should be disseminated through
the media, exhibitions, or live performances. Post's own
Vietnamese co-sponsors for cultural performances have had
to submit the music and lyrics to the Department of Culture
and Information in order to get a permit for each event.
Post can only wonder. Did these minders actually think we
would try to sneak in a non-revolutionary piano note?
20. (SBU) COMMENT: Post believes there is no big cultural
opening around the corner in southern Vietnam. Journalists
and editors Q perhaps because they have relatively better
access to sources and information Q are becoming more
inquisitive. And there are certainly individuals in both
the media and the arts who follow their professional ethics
and conscience. However, if they fall into the bad graces
of the powers-that-be (as in the case of film actor Don
Duong and newspaper editor Le Van Nui), they cannot count
on the support of colleagues who themselves can't afford to
be blacklisted or stripped of their accreditation. Post
continues to build relations with journalists, artist, and
the cultural gatekeepers, looking for appropriate
candidates for the International Visitors program and other
exchange opportunities. As we keep pushing at the door of
free expression, these programs will help carry them across
the threshold with us. YAMAUCHI
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