VIETNAM: Of Progressive Leaps and Jagged Passes

YVONNE EPPS WRITES— Vietnam has come a long way since the start of the year. We’ve seen major progress with the acceptance of social media and dips with press freedom, but the road is still jagged and, if they don’t watch their step, they might end up hurt.

The Economist reported that social media is now gradually becoming an influential platform for expression after a plan to chop down 6,700 trees across Hanoi was halted due to the protests of Facebook users. An initial campaign that planned to gather 6,700 followers, equal to the amount of trees on death row, exploded with support after 20,000 users gathered in the first 24 hours. While 500 trees were not saved, the plan was stopped by authorities and saplings were planted to replace the ones taken down. For once, internet activism is being listened to by authorities.

Trees aren’t the only thing that are being saved.  A sign that was seized from a noodle stall gained internet fame after it was reported on social media that it had finally been returned.  The Bun Bo Gan stall’s infamous sign dictated many humorous rules, such as forbidding people from complaining about the owner on the Internet and being able to pay in any type of paper, except of the toilet variety. The authorities initially seized the sign on the premise that customers coming to read it were blocking traffic, and that it was “offensive,” but the online outcry coaxed them into giving it back.

This new attitude about social media is due to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s assertion that it shouldn’t be banned because it gives party officials the opportunity to have an active dialogue with the people. Tuoi Tre News mentions that Minister of Health Nguyen Thi Kim Tien has her own Facebook page that is currently followed by at least 147,000 people. According to Tien, the feedback she receives from Facebook comments helps her understand the needs of her community and what an important feat this really is.

However, the road ahead is still rough. The Economist points out that the country is still operating under tight censorship and restricted press freedom. Dang Hoang Giang of the consulting firm Centre for Community Support Development Studies believes that these responses don’t necessarily mean that the politics of the party are more open.

This doesn’t mean that we should give up on Vietnam’s ability to accept the importance of social media, but that they should strive for even more openness. The floodgates are open, but something more than a simple statement is needed to change the plateau for the closed nature of the politics and attitudes about press freedom.

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