CNN and the ethics of Vietnamese dissident interviews
Last week CNN International ran a segment on Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, the Vietnamese blogger who goes by the name “Me Nam” (Mother Mushroom) and spent 10 days in jail last August after she criticised Chinese bauxite mining in Vietnam. CNN correspondent Andrew Spencer interviewed the affecting Ms Quynh in Ho Chi Minh City. In a followup article on Thursday, CNN’s Pamela Boykoff wrote that before Ms Quynh drove her motorbike down from Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City for the interview, the blogger emailed to ask: “Can you sure filming is OK and safe for us?” I’m curious what CNN’s response was.
It should have been “no”. Dozens of dissidents have been sentenced to multi-year jail terms in Vietnam over the past three years, usually for “spreading propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” For many of those convicted, the fact that they gave interviews to foreign news organisations has counted as evidence against them. The US and European governments protest the arrests of democracy activists, but foreign intercession has never prevented the conviction of a Vietnamese dissident, except for a few who had foreign citizenship. (I’m aware of just one case in which a jailed Vietnamese democracy activist with close ties to American institutions was released without a trial due to US pressure.)
As for news organisations like CNN (or the ones I work for), we can do nothing to protect the dissidents we interview, apart from running critical reports on their arrests and convictions. The Vietnamese government largely ignores such press coverage, and foreign media don’t usually pay much attention either. It’s just one small story among many. The fact that Ms Boykoff’s article consistently misspells Ms Quynh’s name doesn’t give much reassurance that CNN is paying focused, long-term attention to the issue of Vietnamese democracy activism. Nor does the televised report’s use of a file-footage establishing shot of the old National Assembly building in Hanoi, which was torn down over a year ago. To a Vietnamese spectator watching the report, the use of that shot says: we don’t follow Vietnam very closely.
What responsibilities do news organisations have in these circumstances? Does Ms Quynh know what she’s getting into by going on CNN to criticise the Vietnamese government? Is she under the misimpression that the publicity will help protect her from arrest? I’ve interviewed a number of people like Ms Quynh, ordinary citizens rather than public figures who have fallen into dissident status without entirely meaning to, and who, having grown up in Vietnam’s cloistered information environment, may be strikingly naive regarding the nature of the Vietnamese state and the ability of foreign governments or organisations to intercede. I’ve also interviewed highly educated, self-conscious dissidents who knew precisely what they were getting themselves into and had a reasonable sense of what strategies were likely to be effective.
I’m happy to report the statements of this latter sort of dissident. Moreover, I’m obliged to. They’re political activists who are making news. My job is to report the news. They’re acting quite deliberately, and they can take care of themselves. With the less sophisticated dissidents, however, things get complicated. I sometimes feel that these are people who have been pushed over an emotional edge by the unfair treatment they’ve received, and are lashing out in a fashion that, in the end, will only hurt them. By running interviews with them, you’re essentially exploiting and to some extent egging on their self-destruction.
I’m not saying CNN shouldn’t have run the interview. It’s their call. But I hope that when Ms Quynh asked whether CNN could ensure they would be “safe”, they told her very clearly that they couldn’t, that what she was doing was not safe at all.