From: Vietnam: Rising Dragon, by Bill Hayton (Yale U. Press, 2010), Kindle Locs. 2931-2947, 3019-3044:
Right from the beginning of doi moi, Party leaders wanted the media to act as an agent of reform. The Politburo knew that hundreds of thousands of people had grievances about corruption and mismanagement by local officials and that it didn’t have the capacity to address them all. So, in effect, it delegated some of the power of inspection and exposure to the media. A new Press Law, formally approved in 1990, specifically gave journalists the right to gather their own information and made it an offence to obstruct their work. Simultaneously the end of Soviet aid meant the end of subsidies. Newspapers and magazines had to actively sell their product – and therefore offer something readers actually wanted to buy. Just as in every country with a freer press, editors discovered that the best thing for selling papers was crime. And who better to publish crime stories than a newspaper owned by the police themselves? Readers of Cong An Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh (Ho Chi Minh City Police) are treated to a diet of sex and murder – with reportage straight from the horse’s mouth. The editorial line of the paper both terrifies the audience and reassures it that the police are on hand to catch the bad guys and keep the streets safe. It’s a successful mix, making it easily one of the country’s biggest selling papers.
The once near-monopolistic Nhan Dan, on the other hand, is kept afloat by the obligation placed upon every Party and government office to buy a copy. If it were left to survive on its street sales it would have gone bust long ago – it’s almost impossible to find in newspaper kiosks. The people don’t want to buy ‘The People’. Nhan Dan is not alone. Quan Doi Nhan Dan (the army newspaper) and Hanoi Moi – published by the Hanoi City Communist Party branch – are also kept going by compulsory purchase arrangements. Instead consumers have turned to papers which have built a reputation for uncovering corruption, exposing malpractice and widening the boundaries of what it’s acceptable to print.
The search for profit usually tops almost all other considerations – including, from time to time, ideological instructions. It’s sometimes a major battle for the Party to keep control. The local TV networks in Hanoi, and particularly in Ho Chi Minh City, now make so much money from advertising that they don’t need state subsidies – and if they don’t need the money why should they take the state’s instructions? The answer so far is that Party discipline has been stronger than the lure of cash but such divided loyalties are becoming more and more difficult to manage. So much so that the Prime Minister was forced to issue his December 2006 directive ordering tighter control over the press, in which he said Vietnam would never allow privately owned media.
But one media outlet is already almost entirely privately owned. The hugely popular online site, vnexpress.net, started life as a project of FPT, the Corporation for Financing and Promoting Technology, wholly owned by the Ministry of Science and Technology. Under its highly entrepreneurial management (led by Dr Truong Gia Binh, former son-in-law of General Giap: see Chapter 1) FPT has grown from its original 13 employees into an employer of several thousand, with a series of IT outsourcing contracts for companies in Japan and Europe. It is also one of Vietnam’s largest internet service providers and telecoms companies. In 2001 it set up its own online news site – and just like VietNamNet-TV it did so without a government licence. Initially vnexpress.net was classified as an ‘internet content provider’, meaning that it could only publish material that had already been published elsewhere. By selecting the stories which the site’s editors thought would most interest readers and by focusing on information rather than ideological comment it rapidly reached a huge audience. Its business plan required it to reach 200,000 users within a year and a half. It achieved this within four months. But by the end of its first year in business it had already made profits from advertising of $70,000. It was the only unsubsidised website in the country. After more than a year of lobbying, vnexpress.net eventually received its licence from the Ministry of Culture. It was surprisingly easy. At the time it seemed to the leadership of vnexpress.net that the Ministry didn’t really see the point of an online newspaper or understand its potential significance.
As it has evolved, the parent company of vnexpress.net, FPT, has grown far away from its roots. Just 8 per cent of its stock is still owned by the state, around 80 per cent by its employees and foreign investors (including the venture capital arm of the US chip-maker Intel), with the remainder held by investment houses based in Vietnam. Thus one of the most important Vietnamese news outlets is almost wholly owned by private interests in contradiction of government policy. Its survival rests less on the law than on the balance of relationships between the company’s patrons and potentially hostile forces in other parts of the Party and government. FPT has become one of Vietnam’s biggest companies and its connections run deep into the Party leadership and into the boardrooms of some of the biggest global corporations. It has no shortage of allies to call upon if it’s ever put in a difficult position. For the time being vnexpress.net, its most controversial subsidiary, exists in a curious legal limbo.