Vietnam's 'Man From the Ministry' - Big Brother in Action
A hotel foyer in Vietnam seemed a rather odd place to meet my “man from the ministry.” Although I have poached this title from a British comedy programme that was a bit before my time, it added a hint of humour to a situation that made me feel thoroughly uncomfortable. My “man from the ministry’ was in fact assigned by Vietnam’s government to follow me around and make sure I didn’t veer from the very positive spin I was encouraged to put on my Visa application. Vietnam is a one-party Communist State and doesn’t take kindly to free speech that criticises their policies (or lack of them) or the journalists that peddle such information.
Having recently subscribed to Reporters Without Borders newsletter, it brought this culturally alien episode flooding back. Such organisations come into their own when dealing with repressive countries that use censorship and brutality as their stock in trade governing tools. They provide financial aid to journalists caught in this cultural cross-fire. Whether physically attacked because of their work or facing persecution, the money can be used for legal or medical fees or transportation costs when absconding.
This “man from the ministry” was embarrassingly handsome, had a disarming smile and a smart casual outfit that would pass on any Western street. Call me paranoid, but I somehow felt that all of this was carefully orchestrated to put me at my ease. It would have worked if it wasn’t for the less relaxed manner of his persistent pursuit. I recall one comical moment when I had shaken him off and found myself in an operating theatre where a bear was undergoing a dental. A blissful reprieve. However, within minutes, his panic ridden face popped up in the ground floor window, as if he had been hiding in the flower bed.
Although ridiculously comical at the time, it belied a seriousness that left me on edge for the two days we spent together. Vietnam has a thin veneer of normality but Reporters Without Borders ranks it 176 out of 180 in their 2019 World Press Freedom Index. This is the bad end of the scale making them one of the worst countries for freedom of speech. This might sound like a rather banal concept but it is this freedom that allows the press to investigate corruption, hold those in power to account and protect the vulnerable from abuse. Although democratic societies are a little blasé about such things, freedom of speech basically underpins all our human rights.
The Vietnam Communist Party controls all State media with weekly progress meetings at the Central Propaganda Department; their aim is to ensure that the State Press only promotes the Communist Party’s policies and doctrine. Citizen-journalists and bloggers are bravely using the internet to fill this journalism void. However, in 2017, a 10,000 strong military department called Force 47, was made responsible for “defending the Party and targeting dissident bloggers.” Arrested in January 2018, Do Cong Duong is now serving 9 years for blogging about the eviction of vulnerable people in the wake of Vietnam’s rapid urbanisation. Vietnam presently holds 30 such journalists and bloggers in prison.
Unfortunately, the UK has a very negative take on journalists. Our psyche is partly shaped by the horrific hounding of Princess Diana, ultimately leading to her death in a sordid Parisian underpass. Stalking these famous and sometimes much loved British icons certainly provides the offal that feeds the tabloid tittle-tattle but others have been responsible for many positive investigations. The Sunday Times coverage of the out of court settlements for Thalidomide children, The Daily Telegraph’s story about MPs abusing their expense claims and The Times’ exposure of Rotherham’s Child Sex Scandal.
However, according to Reporters Without Border’s research, the UK is facing a “worrying trend.” We are now ranked as one of the worst countries in Western Europe for freedom of the press. A lot of this hinges around the erosion of protection for journalistic sources – whether the Investigatory Powers Act, the mass surveillance regime or new crime and counter-terrorism legislation.
It all sounds a bit dull but quality investigations that uncover such page-turning wrongdoing relies on these sources. They are often ordinary people who are prepared to share inside information about criminal activity in governments and corporations. Anonymity literally saves their lives and gives sources the courage to reveal the truth. Without their protection, the press will inevitably shift more towards the vapid ‘red top’ entertainment and away from investigations that protect society.
Christophe Deloire, Reporters Without Borders Secretary General points out on their website that “none of humankind’s big problems - whether global warming, corruption or gender inequality – can be solved without information that is freely and independently reported.” A salutary point, and something the UK should be less complacent about unless we want the “man from the ministry’ creeping into our everyday lives.