Voice of America removes story that embarrassed Vietnam’s prime minister
Washington Post November 15, 2022
While waiting to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington in the spring, Vietnam’s prime minister and his subordinates had a few undiplomatic things to say.
In unguarded comments picked up by a live State Department video stream, the delegation proudly discussed its resistance to American demands for a statement condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “We made them back off,” one official said, amid laughter. Perhaps most shockingly, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh repeatedly used crude language to describe an earlier meeting with President Biden and other U.S. officials at a White House dinner.
The remarks soon found their way into a news story published by Voice of America’s Vietnamese-language service, and this rare unvarnished glimpse of Vietnam’s carefully stage-managed leaders soon went viral both inside Vietnam and among its worldwide diaspora.
And then it disappeared.
VOA offered no public explanation for what had happened to the story and why it was suddenly unavailable on its website, Facebook page and YouTube channel. In place of the missing footage, a notice in Vietnamese on its website simply said the video was no longer available following a review.
In fact, emails obtained by The Post indicate VOA took action after an official from the Vietnamese embassy in Washington complained that the hot-mic video violated Pham’s privacy. In a May 20 email to Voice of America, the official - Khahn Nguyen, the embassy’s press and cultural attache - said that the release of the footage was an “error” by the State Department.
“The conversation contains nothing special,” wrote Nguyen to VOA’s acting director, Yolana Lopez, requesting removal of the story. “The act of spreading [information about] a person without his awareness, knowledge and consent is unacceptable as it violates the principle of respect for privacy as well as journal [sic] professionalism and ethics. Moreover, the coverage of VOA has been abused and distorted for political purposes.”
VOA took down the video three days after receiving Nguyen’s email.
The decision disturbed journalists in VOA’s Vietnamese-language service, who objected to the removal in a meeting with senior editors shortly afterward but received no explanation.
One frustrated employee described it as a betrayal of the organization’s values and mission. “It’s detrimental to our reputation as a news outlet,” said the staff member, who asked not to be named to avoid retribution. “Our slogan is ‘A free press matters.’ This is so ironic.”
The appearance of pressure from a foreign government is a particularly sensitive issue at VOA, which was founded by federal decree in 1942 to counter foreign wartime propaganda. Since then, VOA has evolved into a government-funded but independent news organization, broadcasting and reporting in 48 languages. It typically provides news in countries whose governments restrict the media. It also chronicles instances of press censorship in other countries, including recent crackdowns in Iran, Somalia, Congo and Egypt.
In VOA’s first public response about the matter, a spokeswoman, Bridget Serchak, said Monday that the video was pulled not because of Vietnamese pressure but because the language used by the Vietnamese officials in it was “objectionable,” and in violation of the organization’s standards. She compared the language used to “words considered obscene by the FCC,” although some Vietnamese speakers suggest the language was merely coarse but not broadly offensive.
Radio Free Asia - a sister news organization to VOA - also reported on the delegation’s comments on both its English and Vietnamese-language websites, using the State Department-supplied footage. Its story remains online. A spokesman, Rohit Mahajan, said the organization did not receive any requests to remove it.
On the same day the embassy formally complained about the video, VOA’s news standards editor, Steve Springer, wrote to staff members that he had been unaware of the language issue and would have recommended that VOA “bleep the offensive words” before posting it.
Instead, he recommended getting rid of it altogether. “The story is now one week old,” he wrote. “It’s been seen and read about.”
Although the Vietnamese delegation may have been unaware that cameras were recording their discussion, the State Department’s live stream is part of the public record, meaning news organizations are free to use it. Springer acknowledged as much in his email, saying he wasn’t aware of any directive from the State Department prohibiting its use.
But he added, “And just a reminder that no other government can dictate editorial policy or decisions to VOA.” Springer did not respond to a request for comment.