Monday, June 10, 2013

Regulating television in Vietnam

Ministry of obscurity 

THE Communist Party cadres who run Vietnam’s government have never been regarded as the biggest fans of free speech—they prefer jailing the dissidents who challenge their authority—but they may have reached a new low recently, with a law designed to force foreign television broadcasters to pay to be censored.

Technically, the law requires only that the broadcasters apply for so-called “editing licences”. But the media outlets are wary; the implication is that they could be required to pay English-speaking Vietnamese “editors” to watch their content, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The “editors” could then contrive to block coverage of, for instance, political uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. Or documentaries about political repression in Vietnam.

Vietnam already keeps foreign TV broadcasts on a 30-minute delay, to give (state-employed) censors time to cut politically sensitive content. It is quite a different matter however to require the broadcasters to play an active role in that process—a scenario that would make the broadcasters ethically uncomfortable, according to analysts of the industry. As the law neared implementation, a few movie and lifestyle broadcasters applied for their new licences, but the news broadcasters refused. Their choice has cast them into a legal grey area.

In late May, a few days after the law took effect, a few local providers cut the BBC and CNN from their programming “bouquets”, which include selections from the 60 to 70 foreign channels broadcasting here. Among the first to jump ship was K+, a French-Vietnamese joint venture and Vietnam’s only provider to enjoy foreign investment. (All but one of the other, dozen-odd stations are state-owned.) An analyst surmises that K+ pulled its news channels not for safety’s sake but in order to force the government to clarify its murky TV policies.

The law, known as Decision 20, did not please foreign embassies, nor Reporters Without Borders, which said the law “opens the way to all kinds of censorship”. After weathering a few days of bad publicity in the international press, the Ministry of Information and Communications reinstated the broadcasts that had been blocked. The law has now been “revoked in practice”, says a senior lawyer at an international law firm in Ho Chi Minh City. But industry experts say the at-risk news broadcasters, far from feeling relieved about the government’s intentions, remain on edge.

Aside from being regressive and annoying, the law underscores friction within Vietnam’s information ministry. Its old guard is said to want the country to emulate its comrade to the north, China, which allows just 34 foreign channels to be beamed—under censors’ watch—into upscale hotels and foreign business compounds, but not to the Chinese public. Vietnam’s reformers, by contrast, want their TV landscape to be made freer and more competitive.

Draft versions of the law had been bouncing around the ministry since 2009, and the rivalrous factions are said to have been sending mixed signals to foreign broadcasters and diplomats. The result is that the ministry is unable to communicate its own policies effectively. “What you have is people with different points of view who push and pull, and the policy rudder gets tilted one way or the other, depending on who has his hands on the controls at any given time,” says John Medeiros, chief policy officer at CASBAA, a Hong Kong-based group that represents the pay-TV industry in Asia. So much for Vietnam being a monolithic Communist juggernaut.

As of this writing, foreign channels are still on the air, albeit on the usual 30-minute delay, and the BBC says it is in “continued discussions” on the matter with the government. Which is all well and good. But the law has already put the business model of K+ and its Vietnamese competitors, who make their money by offering attractive programming bouquets, in jeopardy. Adam Sitkoff, executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hanoi, says that Decision 20 is only the latest in a series of onerous new regulations—in banking, labour and other areas—that have annoyed foreign businesses and investors.

In fairness, Vietnam is, according to some measures, on a gradual if erratic path of reform. Not a moment too soon, it announced in late May that it would approve the establishment of an asset-management company to buy up bad debt in its creaky banking sector, for example. And in recent weeks it has partially reformed its customs system, and eased restrictions on foreign-invested retail establishments.

With the economy suffering under the weight of entrenched corruption and dismal economic mismanagement, the government can ill afford to indulge its old guard by implementing more unclear and counterproductive regulations. The buzz in some circles of the foreign business community is that some of the investment capital that once fuelled growth here is increasingly finding its way to Indonesia instead. By Banyan for The Economist

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