Revolutionary Journalism

On 4 April this year, I was invited to attend the celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Huỳnh Thúc Kháng School of Writing and Journalism. Set up on the instructions of President Ho Chi Minh on 4 April 1949, the school was housed in a simple bamboo hut on the shores of Núi Cốc Lake (Hồ Núi Cốc) in Thai Nguen province, some 80 kilometres north of Ha Noi.

In 1949, the Resistance against French colonialists, backed by US Imperialists, was facing difficult times. From 4 April to 6 July 1949, 42 young students were trained by 29 lecturers, including General Vo Nguyen Giap, in Revolutionary journalism, so they could put their talents and newly acquired expertise at the service of the Revolution and contribute to their country’s struggle for Independence and Liberty. At the end of the course, they produced the first edition of their revolutionary newspaper, “Huỳnh Thúc Kháng”.

President Ho Chi Minh was not able to visit the school, but, as a seasoned journalist, editor and publisher, he sent letters in which he outlined his advice to journalists.

As we live in the age of fake news, of which there have been some glowing examples lately, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit Uncle Ho’s principles of revolutionary journalism. In a nutshell, they are:

1. Know why you write and who you write for.

2. Be succinct.

3. Get your facts right.

4. Don’t use complicated language and fuzzy ideas.

5. Believe in what you write, especially if you are committed to a just cause.

In a Uncle Ho’s case, it was Independence and Liberty for his country and people, the end of French colonial rule and feudalism.

I would like to give as an example a practical lesson in journalism President Ho Chi Minh gave my father, journalist Wilfred Burchett, in his jungle headquarters in Thai Nguyen, in March 1954, on the eve of the battle of Dien Bien Phu.

Here’s how Wilfred Burchett tells the story:

“What is this big action the French are talking about at Dien Bien Phu?” I asked. President Ho turned his sun helmet upside down on the table. Running his slim fingers around the outer rim, he said “This is the situation. Here are mountains and that is where our forces are. Down there is the valley of Dien Bien Phu – that’s where the French are with the best troops they have in Indochina. They will never get out. It may take some time, but they will never get out.”

“An Indochina Stalingrad?”

“In relation to conditions here, yes. In a modest way, it is something like that.”

As I discovered in many subsequent meetings, this was an illustration of President Ho’s capacity for reducing complicated problems to a few words and graphic images. The idea of the cream of France’s operational troops in the bottom of Ho Chi Minh’s sun-helmet remained with me all the way to Geneva and at the conference itself as the historic battle raged to its climax.

(Wilfred Burchett, Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist).

And so Wilfred Burchett could report to the world, in the first of six articles cabled from Somewhere in North Viet Nam, on 31 March 54: A GREAT DISASTER FOR THE FRENCH ARMY.

One month and one week later, on 7 May 1954, the French army was defeated at the historic Battle of Dien Bien Phu. And that was the end of French colonial rule over Indochina.

That historic victory was not due to the Viet Minh’s military superiority over the French army, supported by American money and arms. It was due to the dedication of millions of Vietnamese men and women, young and old, to the cause of Independence and Liberty. Revolutionary journalists, starting with Ho Chi Minh, played a fundamental role in Viet Nam’s long and heroic  struggle against colonialism and feudalism, and later American aggression.

I had the great honour to be seated among some of Viet Nam’s veteran Revolutionary journalists on the shores of beautiful Núi Cốc Lake in Thai Nguyen, watching young singers, dancers and actors re-enact on the stage episodes from those heroic times. I was thinking of the many lives and talents, including revolutionary journalists, sacrificed for the sacred cause of Independence, Liberty and Unity.

I was also thinking that Revolutionary journalism is only possible when truth is on your side. Then the word is mightier than the sword. When words serve a just cause, no army can defeat them.

George Burchett is an artist and occasional writer who was born in Ha Noi and works and lives in Ha Noi.

George Burchett is an artist who lives in Hanoi.