Facebook trumps state media as Vietnam mourns General Giap

October 6, 2013 7:30 am
 Retired General Vo Nguyen Giap, salutes during a meeting in Hanoi, December 19, 1996/AFP
Retired General Vo Nguyen Giap, salutes during a meeting in Hanoi, December 19, 1996/AFP

, Hanoi October 6- As news emerged of the death of Vietnam’s legendary General Vo Nguyen Giap, most journalists were forced to stay silent leaving the landmark event to be revealed by the country’s swelling ranks of Internet users.

Tributes to Giap, whose guerrilla tactics defeated the French and US armies, flooded cyberspace soon after his death at 102 on Friday. But reporters in some of the biggest state media outlets could not print a thing about the biggest event in years.

“It’s really stupid but we can’t do what we want. It’s just procedure we have to follow,” one disgruntled editor at a top state run news agency told AFP, adding that outlets had to wait for an official announcement which was not released until Saturday.

Giap second only to late revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh as modern Vietnam’s most revered figure will be given a national funeral and two days of mourning, according to Saturday’s statement from the Vietnamese Communist Party.

A delay between the death of a top public figure and a formal announcement is standard practice in authoritarian Vietnam.

But social media is increasingly filling the country’s information void, despite crackdowns on online dissent that have seen dozens of bloggers jailed.

“I learned the news of Giap’s death from the Internet,” said Do Tuan Khai, 55, who owns a coffee shop in Hanoi.

Facebook which is periodically blocked but wildly popular in Vietnam erupted into tributes and condolences Friday after users heard of the military strategist’s death.

Branded an “enemy of the Internet” by Reporters Without Borders, Vietnam bans private media while all newspapers and television channels are state run.

Vietnam has also recently passed a sweeping new Internet law which bans bloggers and social media users from sharing news stories online, although it remains unclear how this will be implemented.

But the rise of blogs and social media means it will be harder for the communist party to control the official narrative around Giap as the country prepares for his funeral on October 13, Vietnam expert Carl Thayer told AFP.

“There will be two stories. First, the official one that he was a perfect general, strategic mastermind, everything the party wants you to hear,” he said.

“Then there will be the sore tale of a general who was shunted aside,” which will not feature in the official narrative, he added.

Giap, who masterminded the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu and pushed the Americans out two decades later with the fall of Saigon, enjoyed near mythical status overseas as a master strategist.

But his success on the battlefield earned him powerful enemies at home, and he was pushed to the political sidelines after Vietnam’s reunification in 1975.

He was eased out of the Politburo in 1982 and left politics officially in 1991.

The general spoke out until well into his 90s, writing open letters or using anniversary events to rail against everything from corruption to controversial bauxite mining.

In 2006 he wrote that the Communist Party had “become a shield for corrupt officials”.

But his enormous popularity is likely to outshine any lingering resentment from the party, Thayer predicted.

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