HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam, Oct 13 (Reporting ASEAN) – A Vietnamese reporter once visited the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, and randomly asked five local youngsters: “What organization is this?” Three of them shook their heads, one said something about ‘foreign cooperation’, and the third one gave the correct answer.
Although these are by no means representative of the entire Indonesian youth, the result nevertheless reflects to some extent ASEAN citizens’ awareness and perceptions of ASEAN, which turns 50 years old this year.
Several studies over the years, before and after the launch of the ASEAN Community in 2015, have reflected different levels of awareness and understanding of ASEAN in the region. A 2013 survey by the ASEAN Foundation showed that only 10 per cent of university students in Vietnam had knowledge about ASEAN. Several analyses tend to show that while awareness of ASEAN has grown in the years leading up to the formation of the ASEAN Community two years ago, the understanding of what ASEAN does lags behind that surface knowledge.
In Vietnam, a look at the press shows that local journalists rarely write about ASEAN issues even though the country joined ASEAN 22 years ago, in 1995. Journalists in Vietnam have not given ASEAN the amount of attention it deserves.
Only when there are conferences, conventions, exhibitions, or press releases related to ASEAN do they start their reports, which can take the form of long, straight-news articles or interviews.
An example is an interview with Pham Binh Minh, a Vietnamese deputy prime minister, ahead of ASEAN’s 50th birthday on Aug. 8. In an Aug.2 interview published by Tuổi Trẻ newspaper, Pham Binh Minh said: “Solidarity vital to ASEAN’s survival.”
Tuổi Trẻ, an enterprising publication, also carried an Aug. 13 feature about Vietnamese staff working at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta. In the same month, the popular newspaper published two other news pieces related to ASEAN: ‘ASEAN, China adopt framework for crafting code on East Vietnam Sea’, and ‘Message from ASEAN Youth Ambassadors’. In September, it had one ASEAN-related news story and in October, none.
A look at the newspaper from April to July this year showed there was no ASEAN-related news during that time, except for a piece about an ASEAN beauty pageant held on Jun. 24 in central Phu Yen, Vietnam.
But all year long, there have been news items about the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), since the APEC Summit with be held in central Da Nang city in November 2017, with US President Donald Trump and the leaders of other APEC economies in attendance.
A contest to select the logo for APEC 2017 has been also organized by the Agency for Fine Arts, Photography and Exhibition under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the National Committee for APEC 2017.
APEC, aimed at creating prosperity in the region by promoting accelerated regional economic integration, comprises of 21 economies, including Australia, China, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the United States, and Vietnam, among others.
The above examples provide food for thought on how Vietnamese newspapers treat ASEAN issues in general.
It appears that reporters tend to not actively look and gather information for ASEAN-related articles, but often follow events in the ASEAN and governments’ activity calendar.
The reason is easy to guess: Reporters chase after breaking news and events so much so that they have no time to ponder over more in-depth topics. Another reason may be that attending conferences and conventions is simply less of a difficult task than finding topics on one’s own. In other words, many prefer the easy path.
But there is one more reason: Reporters lack a deep enough understanding of ASEAN. In all stages of education, ASEAN has never been a major topic except, perhaps, when it is taught in the history or international relations departments of universities.
The low-profile status of ASEAN in the media may induce journalism professors, professional journalists, editors, to dismiss it altogether.
Vietnamese media find APEC a more interesting, bigger story than ASEAN, even though it is the regional organisations 50th birthday this year.
Lastly, as ASEAN’s official documents are published in English, only a minority of reporters can independently tap into such resources and keep abreast of the latest developments. Others reporters are forced to rely on governmental sources, official events, and a handful of newspapers for ASEAN-related articles, which they simply copy as linguistic and academic incompetence discourages any attempt at further research.
Moreover, nowadays newsrooms have priorities in mind other than ASEAN.
This year, for instance, APEC is of “premier importance” to Vietnam, so news people are focusing more on APEC issues, which is thought to be more important than the ASEAN Community.
Vietnam, which joined APEC in 1998 and chaired APEC 2006, considers APEC to be vital to the country’s economy. This is especially so now, given the collapse of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement after the withdrawal of the United States.
So how do we address this current situation? By educating and raising awareness of the importance of ASEAN, especially for editors and editors-in-chief.
This can be done by improving the knowledge of ASEAN in the Vietnamese language, because only a handful of reporters are proficient in English. Perhaps, an ASEAN database can be established. A compilation from translated documents – official press releases, research papers, online resources, newspaper articles – can be a modest first step in the right direction.
In the long run, journalism departments need to realize the increasing importance for Vietnam of ASEAN in particular and of regional organizations in general.
For its part, the ASEAN Secretariat would do well to set up regular correspondence and contacts with Vietnamese newsrooms.
(*Nguyen Ngoc Tran is a journalist–turned–educator and media observer. He has worked for different media outlets over nearly 30 years.)
(END/Reporting ASEAN/Edited by Johanna Son)