Vietnam has suspended the licence of a popular news site which has largely been supportive of the party line. This does not augur well for other media, given their already precarious position.
Zing News, one of the most popular news sites in Vietnam, was suspended earlier this month. At first glance, one could be tempted to speculate that the suspension was a consequence of the publication’s pursuit of editorial independence in a country where the government has increasingly tightened public discourse. But that barely is the case. In most if not all cases, Zing stuck to the party line in its coverage.
The suspension stems from the authorities’ view that Zing had covered topics beyond its remit. This engenders broader implications. It underscores the precarious position of the mainstream media in Vietnam: despite their unwavering adherence to the party line, the fates of news organisations are far from certain as the party-state increasingly pushes for ideological conformity and uniformity.
This is not the first time that a news site has gotten into hot water. In 2018, the online version of Tuoi Tre, a highly influential newspaper, was also suspended for three months after being accused of misquoting the then-Vietnamese president and publishing readers’ comments deemed by the authorities as undermining “national unity.”
But the suspension of Zing, a private-run online magazine that has constantly scooped up international awards, appears to be more serious. On 14 July, the Ministry of Information and Communications announced that Zing News’ publications would be suspended for three months. The outlet was slapped with a fine of around VND243.5 million (US$10,300) following a government inspection. According to a vaguely worded statement by the ministry, the dominant rationale for the suspension centred on the fact that Zing News had covered topics that were deemed in contravention of the stated aims of its license.
Licensed as a digital magazine, Zing News has provided extensive coverage across a diverse range of topics, namely politics, society, global affairs, education, business, urban lifestyle, technology, youth-related matters, as well as entertainment and sports. It tailored its content to cater to a young, Internet-savvy audience, the expanding middle class, and the business community. Judging by Vietnamese authorities’ publicly available statements, it was such diverse coverage, not editorial independence, that constituted Zing News’ transgressions.
A closer scrutiny of what dictates Zing News’ editorial line shows that the publication consistently adhered to promoting state-sanctioned narratives under the banner of innovative online journalism that embraces long form, visual and interactive storytelling. Its coverage of governance misconduct and corruption at the central level has been shaped by political consensus and the framing dictated by the Vietnamese party-state. Its internationally acclaimed coverage has also aimed to portray the country in a favourable light.
The punishment meted out against the publication was part of a stated-sanctioned crackdown on what is called “news-isation” (báo hoá), a term coined by Vietnamese authorities to prohibit all magazines and aggregated information websites from misleading the public into thinking that they operate as news outlets. They cannot cover breaking news or any topics that are not aligned with the raison d’être of the state organisations with which they are affiliated.
Under Vietnam’s Press Law, all press agencies, including those operated by private companies, are required to fall under the purview of state entities. Zing News is technically under the remit of the Vietnam Publishing Society. Before its suspension, the publication was concurrently run by Zalo Group, which itself is a unit of VNG, a prominent technology conglomerate in Vietnam.
This suggests that Zing News would be permitted to run articles primarily focusing on books and the publishing industry. If the outlet deviates and starts covering topics beyond the scope of its licensed aims, as it previously did, this would be considered a violation and could result in the withdrawal of its license. The topics flagged in this regard were determined in a somewhat black-and-white manner, meaning that any article not related to the publishing industry could potentially be deemed a transgression. This means that between 80 to 90 per cent of the publication’s coverage could have been deemed as breaches of the license.
The punishment meted out against the publication was part of a stated-sanctioned crackdown on what is called “news-isation” (báo hoá), a term coined by Vietnamese authorities to prohibit all magazines and aggregated information websites from misleading the public into thinking that they operate as news outlets.
The “news-isation” crackdown has been the key tenet of a controversial press shakeup blueprint that was enforced in 2019. The plan seeks to, among other things, consolidate and increase state control over the mainstream media by merging or eliminating numerous press organisations. The government has justified the shakeup on the need to revamp the bloated bureaucracy and overlapping ownership that have plagued the news industry. While the shakeup is legitimate to some extent, critics have lamented that the authorities are using it as a smokescreen to deter news outlets from straying from the party line.
This suspension of Zing News appears to be a stern warning to other media outlets. Indeed, the same justification for targeting Zing News – that it must adhere strictly to the objectives and mandates of the state entities that it is affiliated with — could potentially be extended to nearly half of over 800 press organisations that are also licensed under state entities in Vietnam. For instance, a news outlet under the Communist Youth Union would be allowed to cover only news related to the young. Similarly, an outlet affiliated with the Ministry of Science and Technology would be expected to devote its coverage to the eponymous field.
The suspension of Zing News is poised to heighten uncertainty and suspense in newsrooms across the country, inevitably inducing further self-censorship. It also presents a daunting question for the mainstream media: Moving forward, how compliant should they be?
It remains unclear what will become of Zing News’ fate after its suspension is lifted. But should the Vietnamese party-state be concerned about international criticism of its treatment of the press, it could point to Zing News as a poster child of a vibrant and dynamic media environment, effectively camouflaging the underlying restrictions and tight grip imposed by the authorities. Seen in such a light, if the publication were to permanently cease operations, that would also represent a significant setback for the party-state.
Point of disclosure: The author worked for Zing News from March 2018 to May 2020.
Dien Nguyen An Luong is Associate Fellow with the Media, Technology and Society Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. A journalist with significant experience as managing editor at Vietnam's top newsrooms, his work has also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, South China Morning Post, and other publications.