HANOI, May 30 (Reuters) – The United States is concerned about the arrests of two Vietnamese journalists whose reporting on a corruption scandal rippled through the ruling Communist Party, an American human rights envoy said on Friday.
“We stress that journalists need to be able to report and write and broadcast without concern for their safety and without concern for their being arrested every time they may report on a sensitive matter,” diplomat David Kramer said after an annual meeting with the Hanoi government on human rights.
The arrests on May 12 sparked complaints from fellow journalists and the public, especially as the state-run media was encouraged to be part of a campaign against graft, which is cited as discouraging investment and hampering development in the Southeast Asian country of 85 million.
The newspaper reporters’ stories of bribery, corruption and gambling in a transport ministry scandal rocked the Party in 2006 and led to the resignation of the transport minister.
An agency that builds roads and bridges with foreign aid has been investigated since 2005 after officials were accused of embezzling state money and using it for lavish lifestyles and betting on European soccer.
Reporters Nguyen Van Hai, 33, of Tuoi Tre (Youth) and Nguyen Viet Chien, 56, of Thanh Nien (Young People), were among the most prolific on the story about the agency known as PMU 18.
After they were indicted for “abuse of power”, their newspapers ran headlines calling for them to be freed from detention during the police investigation.
Reporting on the case has stopped and several other journalists have been questioned.
Kramer, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, said that during his visit he also met activists critical of the government, some of whom live under restrictions.
He noted that Vietnam was making legal reforms and revising its criminal code.
“We hope the pace of human rights in Vietnam keeps up with the pace of economic growth,” Kramer said.
The Vietnam government has opened its economy and foreign policy to the world, but it maintains control over media and does not tolerate challenges to one-party rule. In the past year it has arrested and tried several political and religious activists.