Mission impossible? Creating ombudsmen in Vietnam

The streets of Hanoi are even more crowded than before. The number of motorcycles, scooters and cars has increased enormously since my first visit to Vietnam nearly thirteen years ago. The heavy traffic and the many new vehicles often driven by young people are one sign of Vietnam’s booming economy, one of the fastest growing in the world, even if inflation has been as much as seven percent this spring.

You can see the development in the young, well- dressed people at their motorbikes, eagerly text messaging on their cellphones with one hand and steering the bike in the heavy traffic with the other.

But you can also still see the typical Vietnamese way of living: the sidewalk is not only for pedestrians- it´s for business, it´s for the families, the scooters, for parking, the children and the small restaurants with the very, very small chairs and tables. Behind the doors you see a bed, a television set, a baby boy and perhaps something else; this is the real Hanoi way of living in the old town.

When it comes to media and freedom of the press, Vietnam is a very sad story.

The one and only communist party is in total control of the media and every editor in chief is appointed by the party.

There are also a lot of other things not worthy of a free press, for example when reporters get envelopes with money to write about a special issue or company.

Since the “Great American War” as it is known in Vietnam, ended in 1976, the country has opened up to impressions and influences from abroad.

This is also happening in the media field, although you always have to remember that you can´t write or report critically on the party and the government.

For example, Sweden has for over fifteen years been training Vietnamese journalists. My wife Karin Alfredsson lived in Vietnam for a time and was in charge of in-house training at the state-regulated Vietnam Television, VTV. Sweden will also develop a program for managing directors in Vietnam ending in 2013.

(By the way the Swedish government now has decided to close the its embassy in Hanoi.)

Other countries have also done a lot of media training to develop Vietnamese journalism, including, the US, Germany, Great Britain, Denmark and Norway.

An effect of all this training is that Vietnamese media today is better than ever when it comes to form and presentation. But it is still the party that rules. News editors know this.

For six days in April earlier this year, I was sent to Vietnam to introduce the ONO-idea of ombudsmen in Vietnamese media.

During my visit to Hanoi I met with a lot of people.
For example, I participated in a meeting at the Swedish Embassy, which included the Ambassador Staffan Herrström, along with a lot of people from different embassies and organizations working with media development in Vietnam. After my introduction and speech, some of the participants asked questions about ONO and the ombudsman mission.
These meetings are regularly held once a month in the Swedish Embassy under the direction of Elsa Håstad, first secretary at the Embassy.
After the meeting I also had the opportunity to talk with some of the media experts from different countries.

During a fantastic lunch at a typical Vietnamese restaurant with fresh, organic Vietnamese springrolls, nem (spring rolls), and a consommé with herbs and chicken and a local brewed Hanoi beer, I met and discussed media issues with Catherine McKinley, the experienced and very trustworthy media consultant.

She knows the most of Vietnamese media and has been researching and writing reports for different embassies and organizations. She has been living in Vietnam in more than twenty years mostly in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, nowadays she has moved to Hoi An, a town in the middle of the country, a beautiful place near to the ocean with white and smooth beaches.

Catherine McKinley put me in know re: the Vietnamese media situation, especially how the Vietnamese government is thinking, how to talk with the authorities, and how the future probably will be.

She speaks Vietnamese and told me how the last party congress handled the media. She also pointed out that editors-in-chief nowadays turn out to be more and more party people and less journalists.

The press laws have also been harsher and less humane.

I also talked a lot to Ms. Dung at the Swedish embassy. She has been working with media development for the last fifteen years.

It is obvious that the government in Vietnam, and specifically, the Media and Culture Department, are the ones to decide whether to put on new programs.

Of course I met with representatives for the Government. Unfortunately, I didn´t manage to meet the Vice Minister Mr. Duang, although he had promised me that in advance.

But I met with two of his closest staff people, Mr. Hoang Huu Luong, director of the Press Department, and Ms. Tran Thi Khanh Hoa, Director of the Media Training Centre, for a couple of hours at the department, together with some of their staff, to present the ONO mission.

They listened very carefully, but replied that they already have responsible persons at some newspapers who handle corrections.

They also said they would like me to return to do some lectures and seminars this autumn or in about a year.

But they didn´t have any more money this year.

And Vice Minister Duang is the person to decide.

If ONO and I decide to do this project, there is the possibility of shared costs with the government.

But the big question is of course if ONO and I should make this effort in a country with one party rules everything and where there is no freedom of speech or free press.

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