Lessons from revolutionary journalism

April 18, 2019 - 09:26

On April 4, 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.

by George Burchett *

On April 4, 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.

Established on the instructions of President Hồ Chí Minh on April 4, 1949, the school was housed in a simple bamboo hut on the shores of Núi Cốc Lake in Thái Nguyên Province, 80 kilometres north of Hà Nội.

In 1949, the resistance against French colonialists, backed by US imperialists, was facing difficult times. From April 4 to July 6, 1949, 42 young students were trained by 29 lecturers, including General Võ Nguyên Giáp, in revolutionary journalism, so they could put their talents and 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 Hồ Chí Minh was not able to visit the school, but, as a 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 President Hồ'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 President Hồ'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 Hồ Chí Minh gave my father, Wilfred Burchett, in his jungle headquarters in Thái Nguyên, in March 1954, on the eve of the battle of Điện Biên Phủ.

Here's how Wilfred Burchett told the story:

“’What is this big action the French are talking about at Điện Biên Phủ?’ I asked. President Hồ 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 Điện Biên Phủ – 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 Hồ’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 Hồ Chí 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.” (Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist).

Wilfred Burchett at work at President Hồ Chí Minh's jungle headquarters in Thái Nguyên, March 1954. Photo courtesy of George Burchett

And so Wilfred Burchett would report to the world, in the first of six articles cabled from Somewhere in North Việt 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 Điện Biên Phủ. And that was the end of French colonial rule over Indochina.

That historic victory was not due to the Việt 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. Journalists, starting with Hồ Chí Minh, played a fundamental role in Việt 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 Việt Nam's veteran revolutionary journalists on the shores of beautiful Núi Cốc Lake in Thái Nguyên, watching young singers, dancers and actors re-enact 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 Hà Nội and works and lives in Hà Nội.