Vietnam's media was given strict guidelines on what to report on during the summit. Photo: AFP/Nhac Nguyen

As Vietnamese government officials held a regular monthly meeting on March 1 to discuss political progress in February, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc held aloft the previous day’s copy of the state-run Tuoi Tre newspaper, whose front page boasted a photograph of himself and US President Donald Trump waving tiny Vietnamese flags. 

Despite the second round of talks between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un being cut short on February 28 without a resolution and both side contradicting the other’s message, Phuc was adamant the summit had been a great success for hosts Vietnam. 

“We have done a lot of work to contribute to international relations, making good use of this wonderful opportunity to promote … the image of our country and people of Vietnam,” he stated, before heaping praise on the country’s state-run media, noting in particular one newspaper which had described Vietnam’s hosting of the summit as “full of sunshine.”

It had been obvious that Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party used the summit as a major public relations exercise, designed to bolster the county’s international image and distract from the government’s woeful political and human rights record.

In Vietnam, where independent media outlets are routinely closed or journalists hounded by authorities, state-run newspapers dominate the media landscape, allowing the Communist Party to carefully manage what locals read about current affairs. 

One Vietnamese journalist, who asked not to be named and who writes for a state-run newspaper, said he had been instructed to report only on positive comments made by US or North Korean officials about Vietnam, and to report on how much foreign journalists enjoyed their visit. 

“The point is that it shows the Communist Party is respected internationally and is making Vietnam respected internationally,” he told Asia Times.  

Praise from Trump

This wasn’t a difficult task. During his three days in Vietnam, Trump spoke almost incessantly about Vietnam’s economic achievements, his friendship with the Vietnamese leadership and the US’ close ties with Hanoi. North Korean politicians also praised Vietnam, while its officials will tour the country until Saturday, part of Kim Jong Un’s first state visit to Vietnam.   

Although Trump had made a resounding criticism of socialism just before leaving Washington, a reference to his Democratic Party challengers, once in nominally communist Vietnam he was photographed in front of busts of Ho Chi Minh, the socialist state’s founder, and waving the golden-star flag of Vietnam. 

Phuc noted on Friday that the 2,600 or so foreign journalists who arrived in Hanoi this week to report on the summit had also played their part in bolstering Vietnam’s international image. 
One local newspaper reported on his speech: “The prime minister said that the propaganda activities [for] Vietnam and this event was 50 times larger than the APEC 2017,” referring to when Vietnam hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit last year, which Trump also attended. 

“Local media coverage in the run-up to the summit was fairly breathless at times; every arrival of a US Air Force cargo plane at Noi Bai [Hanoi’s airport] was reported, and several agencies clearly had photographers with zoom lenses staked out at the airport,” says Michael Tatarski, a  Ho Chi Minh City-based journalist.  

Vu Thuy Dung, of the Saigon Times, said her editors had mainly asked journalists to report on the role of Vietnam organizing the summit and what it means for the country’s economic model. But the “main job” of the Vietnamese journalists, she added, was to show readers how much the visiting journalists and officials appreciated Vietnamese hospitality.

“De-nuclearization is important, but sometimes it’s not related to the Vietnamese reader. So my job is to find articles that are related to the Vietnamese side, like tourism and industry,” she said. 

Ahead of the summit, this correspondent was interviewed a dozen times by local journalists, who asked his opinion on Vietnamese food, culture and music. So, too, were many other visiting journalists, some of whom said it was a little uncomfortable at times. 

One Vietnamese journalist, speaking anonymously, said the media was tasked with showing the Vietnamese public how much the visiting journalists and tourists liked their country. They were also asked to give as much space as possible to Vietnamese government officials lauding their own achievements at hosting the summit. 

‘City of peace’

“The position, role and work of preparation and organization of the host country of Vietnam are recognized and appreciated by leaders of the two countries [US and North Korea], and the international community,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Le Thi Thu Hang told local journalists on Thursday.

With the stars of coincidence aligning, billboards across the capital described Vietnam as the “city for peace,” a reference to both its hosting of the Trump-Kim talks but the specific designation that UNESCO bestowed upon Hanoi 20 years ago. 

Vietnamese propaganda also made much of the fact that exactly 25 years ago to the month the US finally dropped its two-decade-old sanctions on Vietnam. Hanoi stated that by hosting the summit it was helping to get the US sanctions dropped on North Korea, though this was the sticking point that led to the talks ending early, Trump claimed on Thursday.     

In off-the-record talks, however, Vietnamese journalists working for state-run newspapers said they were instructed on what they could or could not write about. Most said their editors had told them not to cover the intricate details of the talks between Trump and Kim, denuclearization, sanctions and geopolitics. 

Other journalists said they had been instructed not to mention certain words, such as “dictator” in respect to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, nor mention the US-China schisms over North Korea. Indeed, most said they were expressly told not to include too many references to China, a bete noire of the Vietnamese public, but which the country’s ruling Communist Party still maintains very close ties to. 

Coverage certainly reflected the leanings of the state-run newspapers. Tuoi Tre, one of the country’s most read publications which is run by the Communist Party’s youth wings, is known for its more liberal and unfettered reporting, as it was during this week’s summit. It was briefly closed down last year as the result of its political reporting. 

The more conservative and restricted Nhan Dan, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, and Vietnam News Agency, a governmental agency, were much more reserved in their reporting, analysts said. 

One problem for the country’s censors, however, was that they could not control what was said between local and foreign journalists in person. Both sets of reporters socialized easily at the International Media Centre created in central Hanoi for this week’s summit, and for correspondents interested in Vietnamese affairs, the local journalists were willing to talk honestly.  

Moreover, the event also gave Vietnamese journalists who work for government-run operations a view of what journalism looks like without censorship and the heavy hand of the state. “I think local reporters enjoyed having so many journalists here, as it allows them to get a glimpse of what it’s like to do this work in other countries,” said Tatarski. 

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