Journalists are friends, not foes: a diplomat's lesson

May 29, 2022 | 07:22 pm PT
Phan Thuy Thanh Diplomat
The foreign media is an important vehicle to carry Vietnam's image to the world, and so it is wise to welcome it with openness and sincerity rather than wariness.

Vietnamese authorities have always been hesitant about interacting with foreign journalists, some even dreading to handle Q&A sessions with foreign reporters.

Officials fear being held accountable for their own words: what if they gave a wrong answer? What if their quotes were taken out of context?

I graduated in 1974 and had worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ press and information department until my retirement. My first and most valuable lesson was given by the late Minister of Foreign Affairs Nguyen Co Thach, who told us never to be afraid of the press.

I admired his work ethic. He did not mind spending evenings and precious hours after work to meet foreign reporters. He meticulously explained to them the issues at hand like Vietnam-U.S. relations, the war on the northern border and situation in the southwestern border.

Once he was giving an interview to an Italian reporter and it was time for his flight. He took the reporter with him in his car to the airport so that their conversation would not be disrupted.

He taught us that being proactive when working with foreign journalists is a way to build our brand, not just our department or ministry's, but the whole nation's.

To this day no minister has given more interviews to foreign reporters than Thach.

It is not enough to be proactive; you also have to be sincere. An American journalist used to be surprised when our department came together to celebrate her birthday. Outside of work, spokespersons and reporters can become friends.

One can show sincerity through the smallest of gestures. The foreign ministry's press meets often start at 3 p.m., but that is 8 or 9 a.m. in Europe, and so we always used to extend the meeting to accommodate the time zone difference. Spokespersons also try to give private interviews. That is how we build Vietnam's image as a friendly country.

Last but not least is knowledge of international journalism and the media. The foreign press generally works independently and is under little influence from political systems.

In 2001, when the incident occurred in the Central Highlands, we allowed dozens of foreign reporters to cover it. Most of them were satisfied with the trip, but some had concerns after requests to work independently were turned down. They refused to go to locations we had planned for them, thinking it was a setup. Some of them even encouraged other reporters to skip a dinner we had planned to show their protest. They believed the press must always be independent and cannot be bought out in any manner.

We understood their view. We chose not to overreact, but held a short meeting with all the reporters following our afternoon activities. We extended our invitation to dinner, explaining to them that the meal was a local tradition to welcome guests, and that they could follow their schedule as they pleased.

Most of them eventually agreed with us, and the dinner was a success. We also sat some of the more vocal reporters near local leaders during the meal so that they could ask whatever questions they wanted and get answers.

Every year, international agencies with correspondents in Vietnam such as the BBC, AFP and Reuters cover thousands of stories about our country. Their influence is not to be understated. Working with them means maintaining our stance, yet being open and flexible about its delivery. We should accommodate journalists to the best of our ability, by providing interviews or helping them with visa extensions. Not giving them access to us is not a good solution.

The media has always been a vital tool in burnishing Vietnam's image globally. They helped us get rid of sanctions in the past, and even now are offering us great opportunities to protect our nation's best interests.

Openness, trust and sincerity are always the right answer.

*Phan Thuy Thanh is a diplomat and former spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The opinions expressed are her own.

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