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The Nation : Getting Hanoi to loosen up

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Ban on media covering forum is a step back from Vietnam’s place on the global stage

Vietnam has made impressive headway since the country opened up in the mid-1980s with its doi moi policy, or renovation process. It has joined Asean and other major economic groupings both in the region and the world and has now normalised relations with all countries’, including the United States, with which it fought a bitter war. Anyone visiting Vietnam today will not fail to see capitalism flourishing. Nor will they fail to be impressed by the vitality of the enterprising people.

But somehow this economic progress has not been matched by political reform. The old, rigid mindset continues to prevail and the important role of the media in an open society has yet to be recognised by the authorities.

For the first time, Vietnam is hosting the Asia-Europe Meeting (Asem), which is one of the world’s more prestigious gatherings, early next month. As part of the summit, the country also agreed to host this week a series of workshops and discussions called the People’s Forum, which is to cover a range of topics like peace and security, democratisation and people’s rights. Discussions on these kinds of issues are rare in Vietnam. When Vietnam agreed to organise this forum ahead of the October 8-9 Asem summit the European Union, Asean and civil-society organisations expressed their support for the country, taking the move as a reflection of the open-mindedness of the Vietnamese government.

However, Vietnam’s decision on Monday to ban a group of about 10 Southeast Asian journalists from the forum has tarnished the country’s image.

It is hard to understand why Vietnam would prevent journalists from attending the meeting. After all, Vietnam has been quite tolerant of foreign journalists. There may have been times in the past when the government had been offended by the Western press, but to treat members of the media in this way just before it hosts a major international meeting is a bit out of place.

Vietnam has to learn how to cope with the realities of today’s world. Over the past years, the Vietnamese Communist Party has benefited greatly from the positive tone of the coverage by the international media. But from a journalist’s point of view, both the negative and positive aspects of modern-day Vietnam must be included in this coverage to allow readers to form their own judgements. Hanoi’s action will only have the opposite effect of what the country had in mind when it carried out the ban. During Asem, the whole world will once again focus on Vietnam. Despite its uneasy relations with the foreign media, the Vietnamese government should take this chance to welcome their representatives. Foreign media can help reflect the true situation in the country in a way that the government-controlled Vietnamese media cannot. Familiarising itself with international media, after all, will help Vietnam cope with the future as a full member of the international community.

In the age of globalisation, no country can expect to prevent the free flow of information from reaching its people. It this environment is much better to allow journalists to write on topics of their choosing, provided that Vietnam has a fair chance to clarify and explain issues. As it is, Vietnamese authorities appear uncertain of the outcome of all of this media exposure. They seem to fear that negative accounts will surface if journalists are given absolute freedom to write about Vietnam. But if the current news now coming out of Vietnam is any judge, media reports have done more good than harm. Vietnam needs to loosen up.

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