Fifty newspapers and news websites have been dealt a blow by Vietnam’s Ministry of Information and Communications, accused of publishing inaccurate reports on traditional fish sauce's safety and thus causing widespread fear among consumers last month.
In mid-October, the Vietnam Standards and Consumers Association (Vinastas), a non-profit organization, citing results from its own survey, claimed that over two-thirds of the 150 fish sauce samples it tested contained more than the maximum allowable arsenic content per liter (1 gram).
Local news outlets subsequently reported on the story, quoting information from the Vinastas survey, which sent consumers into a spin over the safety of the traditionally-made fish sauces Vietnamese people consume on a daily basis.
Some newspapers and news websites also published further stories exacerbating these concerns.
However, the government looked into the issue and concluded that Vinastas had released its findings in a misleading way, causing unnecessary fear among consumers.
According to the Ministry of Health, arsenic exists in both organic and inorganic forms, but only the latter is toxic. The arsenic in traditional fish sauce is organic, and Vietnam’s food watchdog does not set a limit on organic arsenic content in fish sauce.
As a result, it is untrue to say that Vietnamese fish sauce contains an excessive amount of arsenic, because it is the safe, organic variety and there is no restriction on the ingredient.
Traditional fish sauce is made from fermented fish, whereas mass-produced sauces are made with artificial flavoring. The Vinastas survey suggested that traditionally-made sauces were toxic.
Fifty media agencies that carried reports based on the controversial Vinastas report have been deemed by the Ministry of Information and Communications to have published inaccurate information, and are therefore liable.
The ministry underlined that the false news created panic, causing consumers to boycott traditional fish sauce, and seriously undermined Vietnam's age-old fish sauce industry.
The ministry slapped three different types of fines on the 50 media agencies, based on the seriousness of their violations. These ranged from “undermining national interests”, “causing very serious consequences” to “bringing about serious consequences,” it said Monday.
Of the 50 news outlets, Thanh Nien (Young People) newspaper was subject to the heftiest fine of VND200 million (US$8,929) for publishing six fish sauce-related articles that spread “particularly inaccurate information,” according to the ministry.
Thanh Nien was also found to have deliberately published a series of articles in exchange for advertising revenue, as well as to have collected fish sauce samples for testing, and later released false results of their own, independent of Vinastas.
The newspaper violated the law on media and publishing for “releasing false information, undermining national interests,” the ministry said.
The top executives of the newspaper will face separate sanctions, it was confirmed.
Eight news outlets were fined between VND40 million ($1,786) and VND50 million ($2,232) for “causing very serious consequences,” and 41 others received penalties between VND10 million ($446) and VND15 million ($670) for less serious violations.
According to the Ministry of Information and Communications, the false fish sauce safety reports also triggered a stir on social media, with more than 44,000 posts surfacing on Facebook and other platforms between October 12 and 23. These posts, which helped to spread inaccurate information and unnecessary fear even further, attracted 95,000 shares and more than 63,000 comments.
The 50 media outlets have collectively run nearly 560 stories related to the incorrect fish sauce survey results since they were released last month.