By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Red Herrings & Pinko Slips
A year later, anti-commie media war clings to life in Little Saigon
Nowadays, it's not easy to speak with Le Vu, publisher of Viet Weekly, the Vietnamese-language alternative newspaper. You can't call him directly, and when he attempts to reach you by telephone, it can take three or four attempts before his Internet-based long-distance call goes through. That's because, more often than not, Vu is in Vietnam, drumming up advertising revenue for his newspaper, which has suffered a 90 percent decline in local ad sales ever since anti-communist protesters in Little Saigon declared his paper "communist."
Those accusations began as irate commentaries on Little Saigon radio and television outlets last May, shortly after Viet Weekly printed an editorial by a former Viet Cong guerrilla who lauded Ho Chi Minh and criticized U.S. involvement in the war (see "Red Scare in Little Saigon," Aug. 16, 2007). They quickly grew into weekly protests at the paper's Main Street offices in Garden Grove by camouflage-clad Vietnamese exiles who blared martial music, waved South Vietnamese and American flags, strung up effigies of Ho Chi Minh—and, Vu claims, threatened boycotts against any local store that dared to carry the newspaper.
"We are limping along," Vu says when asked about Viet Weekly's current state of affairs. "In our case, the protesters did illegal things to intimidate and destroy our point-of-sales and advertising. They went beyond their constitutional rights, and unfortunately, in a small community, businessmen are afraid to get in trouble with a group like that." On the other hand, Vu adds, the paper's readership hasn't declined—if anything, it's grown thanks to the notoriety of the past year. Instead of trying to ignore the protests, Viet Weekly has run continuous coverage of them.
Ironically, among the paper's readers are the very protesters who have unsuccessfully sought to shut it down. Earlier this year, after months of targeting Viet Weekly, protesters shifted their focus to Nguoi Viet Daily News, the country's largest Vietnamese-language daily,after the Westminster-based paper ran a photograph of an art installation featuring a foot spa painted in the colors of the South Vietnamese flag. The paper's editorial board fired a trio of editors involved in the decision to run the photograph—and later filed restraining orders against the protesters—but the demonstrations, although steadily shrinking in size, continue.
Trong Doan, one of the protesters hit with the restraining order—and a major organizer of the Viet Weekly protests—was also arrested for allegedly assaulting a Nguoi Viet employee. Feeling that his free-speech rights were being abused, Doan complained to Viet Weekly—which promptly ran a cover story about him in early May. Doan didn't respond to an interview request from OC Weekly, but Vu says Doan and other protesters have moderated their views on Viet Weekly.
"I think we gained respect in his eyes," Vu says. "He respects us as a news organization. We are committed to the principle of journalism to be a forum for all voices, and we have convinced our readers that we are a legitimate newspaper. Even our enemies—the people who are protesting—are reading our newspaper and are depending on our newspaper for stories and getting their voices heard."
Although the protests against Nguoi Viet have dwindled, Doan and other activists continue to accuse the paper of being soft on communism. Their latest evidence? Photographs of Yen Do, the paper's former editor and publisher, supposedly meeting in San Francisco with officials of the communist government of Vietnam. Do died in 2006 of natural causes, so he can't defend himself, but many observers have questioned the authenticity of at least one of the photographs. (To certain trained eyes, Do's belt buckle doesn't match its purported reflection on an office desk.)
Do's daughter, Orange County Register columnist Anh Do, is also Nguoi Viet's current editor. "I think the photo is a pretext," she says. "We definitely question the source of the photos—whether they are real. . . . The whole thing is really kind of odd." Do says Nguoi Viet is doing the best it can to remain above the political fray, even as the paper continues to be attacked by right-wing critics.
She says the firing of the paper's editors over the foot-spa controversy was carried out by the paper's board of directors and that she had no control over their decision, adding that the protests have had no further effect on Nguoi Viet's coverage. "I respect their right to protest, but I would respectfully ask of them to grant us our right to free speech as well."
One of the fired editors, Hao-Nhien Vu, believes that neither Nguoi Viet nor Viet Weekly responded correctly to the protests. "Viet Weekly was too confrontational and Nguoi Viet was too compliant," he says. He adds that most Little Saigon residents aren't paying much attention to the protests. "In the big picture, it is part of [Little Saigon's] growing pains," he says. "People have to learn you will probably never shut down a newspaper by threatening to protest. How long has Viet Weekly been facing this? Nearly a year. But as long as they are working hard, they will stay around."