Earlier this month a national TV channel came under fire for a news report on some 17-year-olds smoking shisha.
While the problem was whether VTC14's reporter tricked the children into smoking to stage the report, it was a rare case in which a Vietnamese media agency was openly criticized for violating ethical standards by revealing full information about underage people's identities.
In fact, violating children's right to privacy is a problem that has dogged the Vietnamese media for years. Local and international organizations have held a few conferences and training programs to help improve journalists' awareness and skills.
However, the issue is still barely addressed.
These days many stories about child abuse in the media, especially news websites, come with a small print that reads: "The name(s) of the victim(s) in the story has been changed."
But elsewhere in the stories, complete details about the children's family, house, school and even class can be found. Sometimes their photos are also published, albeit pixelated.
Nguyen Nhu Lich, a Thanh Nien reporter who has won many awards for her stories on children’s issues, said she was once "shocked" to read a story that explicitly described how a child in Ho Chi Minh City was sexually abused by her stepfather.
Although it said under the story that the victim's name had been changed, her home address was clearly mentioned, she said, aghast.
Nguyen Ngoc Oanh, a lecturer at the Hanoi-based Academy of Journalism and Communication who has spent over 15 years studying child rights in the media, also said "inappropriately" using children's images is one of the most common violations of children’s rights in the Vietnamese media.
Child victims of sexual abuse can be identified through other details provided, though their faces are blurred out and their names are given only in acronym, he said.
For underage criminals/suspects, the situation is worse since many reports show their names and faces without holding anything back, be it thieves or murders.
The only study on the issue so far in Vietnam was released by the non-profit Center for Community Development and Social Work (Codes) in June 2013.
The independent survey was done by five top news website in Vietnam, two of which are online publications of the country's most popular newspapers. It found nearly 550 articles published in 2012, mostly about sexual abuses, violating children's right to privacy by giving full information about their names, ages and home addresses, and showing their faces sometimes without pixelation.
By revealing the children's private information as well as details on how they were victimized, reporters subjected them to public criticism or even danger, the survey concluded.
It cited a case in which a 13-year-old girl and her 23-year-old boyfriend attempted suicide in the central region as they could not cope with social condemnation after many news agencies reported how she got pregnant along with all of her personal information.
In another case, a 12-year-old orphan in the south was nearly kidnapped just two days after a newspaper reported about how she lived alone and took care of her sick mother. The story was meant to call for donation to help the girl.
Ethics and laws
Oanh, the journalism lecturer, said the abuse of children’s rights in the media is mainly due to reporters' lack of respect for children and the lack of knowledge and skills needed for writing stories about children’s issues.
In fact, many media bosses mistakenly believe that writing about children is the easiest and so anyone can do it, he said.
Another reason is that reporters and editors want to make stories sensational to attract more readership, he said.
Le The Nhan, chairman of the non-profit Center for Community Development and Social Work, which is headquartered in the central city of Hue, also said many reporters and editors had little awareness of children’s rights.
He said for the survey he and his team would write to media agencies whenever they discovered inappropriate articles, but would get no response.
On the other hand, Nhan said, Vietnam is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, both of which recognize the right of privacy of humans in general and children in particular.
But local laws still fail to spell out regulations to fully protect such rights, he said.
So, to resolve this issue, besides raising awareness of children’s rights among reporters, editors, children themselves, and parents, it is necessary to have "clear" and "practical" provisions on children's right to privacy in the laws, including the Child Law and Press Law, he said.
How much is enough?
"There are 'internal rules', which are reporters' conscience and responsibility," Lich, the Thanh Nien reporter, said, explaining that if reporters put their own children in the victims' shoes, they would handle the reporting more appropriately and reasonably.
A report with full details is obviously more convincing than one with selective information, but the former could subject child victims and their families to more and deeper pain, she said.
Laura Ngo-Fontaine, communications specialist at UNICEF Vietnam, said Vietnam should prohibit publication of the name, photo and any other information that could lead to the identification of a juvenile or child victim.
Mark Pearson, professor of journalism and social media at Australia's Griffith University, said "most human rights lawyers agree children deserve anonymity" in reports about child abuse and crimes.
Identifying victims in cases of abuse can be "traumatic" and, in most cultures, "embarrassing" for the victims, he said.
"Add to this the international human rights conventions protecting children and privacy and there are strong legal and ethical reasons for not identifying child abuse victims."
For child criminals, the norm is to anonymize them due to the belief that children deserve the chance to redeem themselves and not be "haunted" by the consequences of crimes they committed when they were young, Pearson said.
However, while most countries follow the anonymity practice, some have a "name and shame" policy for repeat offenders, especially those where juvenile crime is a major problem, he said.
While he can understand the position of reporters who claim to need full details to make their stories more convincing, Pearson said "there is a greater public interest in protecting the privacy and mental health of children than there is in providing the media with entertaining stories.
“Such matters can still be reported in an interesting way with the child's identity kept anonymous."