A still image from a news report featuring a group of high school students smoking hookah in Hanoi.
If it's on TV, it must be true. Maybe not.
A channel of VTC, a state-run broadcaster, has been accused of violating ethical standards after it allegedly asked a group of high school students in Hanoi to act as smokers and then vilified them in a news report.
VTC14 came under fire after the 17-year-old students told the press that the story, which was aired on March 27, has made their life miserable for falsely depicting them as heavy smokers who were totally “clueless” about what they were doing to their health.
They said they had agreed to act as smokers in the report, believing that it was meant to warn young people about the harms of hookah, better known as shisha.
The story was aired with their faces and identities clearly shown, even though the reporter promised to blur out their faces, according to the students.
Shisha – flavored tobacco products – is not banned in Vietnam. But in recent years, health and legal experts have been calling on the government to outlaw them, saying that they expose children to major health risks. Local media also often depict the common practice of shisha smoking among young people as dangerous.
The VTC14 report, less than four minutes long, features a group of students smoking. One of them claimed, apparently during an interview, that “Shisha is just for fun.”
Another said her friends convinced her to check it out during one of their gatherings. She said at first she was reluctant, but then found that “there was nothing wrong” with shisha, so she kept on smoking.
The owner of the café where the smoking took place and a mental health doctor were also interviewed in the report.
Speaking to Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper on Thursday, Hoang Trong Hieu, a senior producer at VTC, said the news report was a short documentary and the featured students did admit to smoking.
It was filmed with the students’ consent, and prior to the filming, the reporter already warned them that it would be about a negative practice, he said.
Hieu, however, admitted that VTC producers were at fault for not protecting the identities of the students.
Three of the students told Tuoi Tre that everything they did and said in the clip was scripted and reedited.
T., one of them said her best friend knew Mai Anh Thu, a VTC reporter, who was looking for a couple of students to act in a video about shisha smoking for educational purposes.
T. said she and some other students agreed to meet the reporter on March 25 at a café.
Thu, the reporter, bought shisha and smoking devices for them, saying they were props. The students said Thu asked them to smoke and answer her questions, but not all of them did as told and chose to just sit and watch.
According to Tuoi Tre, one student showed Facebook messages apparently between her and the reporter, who asked the students to wear their school uniforms and promised to edit their schools’ badges out later.
T. said Thu interviewed them a lot, but when others could not give satisfying answers, the reporter asked her to take over.
“The reporter questioned me for up to 30 minutes, but in the end most of my answers were cut out and only quite sensitive ones were kept, like ‘Shisha is just for fun’,” another student said.
Nguyen Thi Minh Nguyet, vice president of Tran Nhan Tong High School, told the newspaper that after the report was aired, she invited Thu to a meeting with her students, but the reporter did not respond to the accusation.
Later the school’s management board sent a letter to VTC14, asking its managers to clarify if the video was really staged and whether the reporter “took advantage of the students’ innocence."
However, in a written reply sent to the school early this week, the broadcaster said its reporter did her job in accordance with the rules and “respected the truth”, Nguyet said.
VTC14 further asked the school to consider not punishing the students “severely” because they are still “young and unaware of their immature act’s consequences,” the vice president quoted the letter as saying.
In an interview with Tuoi Tre, lawyer Hoang Cao Sang of Ho Chi Minh City’s Bar Association, said VTC14 was wrong, whether the video was truly a documentary or a pseudo one.
If the video was meant to feature true people and true stories, the broadcaster was wrong when revealing the students’ identities, badly affecting their dignity, he said.
VTC14 would also be violating both journalistic laws and ethics if the report was staged, the lawyer said.
He urged the students and their schools to ask relevant agencies to step in to find out the truth.
Vo Xuan Trung, another lawyer in Ho Chi Minh City, also said whatever the video was, VTC14 should have talked to the students’ parents and schools, given that they are all under 18.
The students, their parents and schools can ask VTC14 to make correction and public apologies, Trung said, adding that if the broadcaster refused the demand, they can file a lawsuit.
In a public apology that was aired late Saturday, VTC14 insisted that it had abode by all professional regulations and ethical standards when shooting the documentary.
The broadcaster said it was only at fault for failing to blur the faces of the students, badly affecting their dignities and private lives.
VTC also said it suspended the crew that shot, produced and aired the documentary pending further disciplinary action.
At the end of the day, the case was yet another warning about the way the media treat children in general, and children who make mistakes, in particular, psychologist Pham Manh Ha said.
“Those people who made the video has failed, in terms of both professional ethics and humanity,” Ha said.