Top Vietnamese Journalists Arrested

It is a classic case of shooting the messenger. On May 12, government security officers showed up at two of Vietnam’s most popular newspapers. They searched the offices and when they were done they led away two prominent Vietnamese journalists. Both were well known for their coverage of an embezzlement and bribery scandal that brought down a top government minister and put several people behind bars. Now Nguyen Van Hai and Nguyen Viet Chien are in jail themselves, ironically on charges similar to those filed against the officials they investigated: “the abuse of power for personal gain.”

The journalists’ newspapers quickly denounced the arrests. The daily Thanh Nien (Young People) newspaper charged in an editorial that their reporter, Chien, is the victim of a witch hunt—an unusually confrontational tone for a communist country where the press is controlled by the state. Over the past year, Chien was repeatedly questioned about his sources by police “who twisted his reports,” the paper said. “(Chien) was not motivated by any personal motive or interest,” the paper said. “His motive was completely pure.” The Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper said that after the arrest of its reporter it was besieged by a record number of phone calls and e-mails from outraged readers.

The allegations lodged against the journalists are vague. But the real crime they committed was crossing an ever-shifting line of what the country’s media can and cannot report, says Shawn McHale, a professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University who is in Vietnam on a Fulbright-Hays fellowship. Vietnam’s economy has been growing rapidly for the last several years as the authoritarian government gradually embraces free-market reforms. Institutions like the press would like to see a similar lifting of controls and have increasingly been pushing the limits of government tolerance.

A key source of friction between the press and the powerful has been Hanoi’s drive to root out rampant corruption among government officials. A scandal started brewing in early 2006 with the arrest of Bui Tien Dung, the former director of PMU18, a state road and bridge building division with a $2 billion annual budget that is largely funded by the World Bank and Japan. Dung and others were accused of embezzling millions of dollars, most of which was gambled away on European football matches, and spent on prostitutes and luxury cars, according to government investigators.

Dung’s arrest and the sensational details of the case—even the Prime Minister’s office was at one point under investigation—provided a field day for newspapers eager to give their readers something more than bland propaganda. Suddenly journalists were camped out at the homes of the accused, asking unauthorized questions and printing stories that they knew would embarrass the bureaucracy.

But while the Vietnamese press has enjoyed greater freedom of late, “The question is, how high up can you go?” says McHale. Apparently, not that high. Displeased with the coverage during the scandal, then-Prime Minister Phan Van Khai in 2006 called for news outlets to be prosecuted for “going too far.” And today, many see the hand of a higher power in the recent acquittal of the country’s deputy transport minister, the highest-ranking official charged in the Dung investigation, as well as in the arrest of the two reporters who wrote about him.

That’s not to say the press is blameless. Several senior journalists have raised questions about the ethics and reporting standards of Vietnam’s fledgling media. Veteran journalist Huy Duc condemned the arrest of his colleagues, but also noted in his popular blog that the careers of at least two officials in the Communist Party were damaged because of unfounded allegations raised by the press in their PMU18 coverage. “A lot of information printed in newspapers at the time had been made up,” Duc claimed, adding that reporters were used by party sources to destroy their political opponents. Duc blamed journalists for not verifying the accuracy of their information. Says Nguyen Van Phu, managing editor of the English-language Saigon Times: “Many so-called investigative stories were in fact written based on information fed to the reporters on purpose.”

The newspapers of the arrested reporters are urging government investigators to go after the police and officials who provided spurious information. That’s unlikely to happen. At best, the arrests will encourage reporters to “be more careful to double-check sources and do adequate attribution,” says Phu of the Saigon Times. At worst, the incident will discourage media coverage of corruption scandals in the future—which won’t help Vietnam’s leaders in their anti-graft campaign. McHale calls corruption a “cancer” that threatens to eat away at the country’s economic gains. “Billions of dollars of FDI (foreign direct investment) is going to go away” if the problem is not attacked and corrupt officials remain unexposed, McHale says. “There is an interest in having a press that addresses these issues.”,8599,1807113,00.html

Free the honest journalists

Thanh Nien’s offices were swamped yesterday by waves of telephone calls, emails and letters calling for arrested Thanh Nien journalist Nguyen Viet Chien to be released as soon as possible.

Many National Assembly members, state officials, scholars and people from all walks of life have called Chien’s arrest unjust and harmful to the common good.

The following are excerpts from opinions voiced with Thanh Nien:

Tran Van Truyen, chief of the Government Inspectorate, National Assembly member
According to media law, reporters must put out a correction when their stories include any false information.
Heavier penalties could include administrative warning and criminal charges.
However, I don’t see that the charges being put up against these reporters are very clear… Is it possibly because they wanted to prosecute the police investigators [who investigated the PMU18 case] so they’re using [the journalists] as collateral?

Pham Quoc Anh, chairman of the Vietnam Lawyers Association, National Assembly member
I spoke with the head of the Supreme People’s Procuracy of Vietnam yesterday and he said there would be a press briefing soon.
With the recent release of Nguyen Viet Tien [former deputy minister of transport] in the PMU18 case and the arrest of these reporters, the public is sensing that something isn’t right.
The reporters were accused of “abuse of power for personal gain,” but this offense tends to be leveled at those being charged with corruption.
If the police want to charge them, they have to prove what the reporters could have gained from writing their stories.
As far as I know, at the time, many newspapers published similar information about PMU18, not just Thanh Nien and Tuoi Tre, so it’s hard to say they secured personal gains from their actions.

Nguyen Quang A, Ph.D., Head of the Institute of Development Studies
I think [these arrests are] really not a good thing.
They have been carried out too hastily, and I think the reporters have been unjustly charged.
If someone provides false information, he or she can be indicted because he or she did it intentionally.
But these reporters, having simply received information from responsible individuals, are not worthy of the charges.
It may now seem that detaining the reporters is inconsequential, but explaining the situation will be a headache for the police when they release them, and Vietnam’s image in the world community will suffer.
To treat journalists in this manner is unacceptable.

Tran Dinh Trien, lawyer, head of the Vietnam Bank Association’s Legal Department
Everyone, including journalists and police investigators, must be punished if they break the law.
Is there, however, enough evidence to charge the reporters with “abuse of power” in this case? How and to what scale did they “abuse” their “power”? Press agencies have the right to collect and reveal information.
It is not the reporters but the source of that information that must take responsibility for its accuracy.
The reporters covered the PMU18 case after police had begun to investigate the scam.
Thus there were no “government secrets” to be divulged.
In my opinion, the decision to charge the reporters is very weak from a legal standpoint.
In this case, lawyers can demand the right to access and analyze the PMU18 case files to assess the accuracy of the information.
I think we probably have to reinvestigate the PMU18 scandal.
I think the state must consider this case very carefully because it has the potential to demoralize investigators and the press alike in the fight against corruption and social evils.
In the meantime, the Vietnam Journalists Association should maintain a firm and law-abiding attitude.
I am willing to defend the reporters if invited.

Journalist association will protect members within law: chair

Chairman of the Vietnam Journalist Association Dinh The Huynh answered questions from the press yesterday regarding Monday’s arrest of Viet Chien and Van Hai, reporters from Thanh Nien and Tuoi Tre respectively, who were apprehended for their coverage of the PMU18 scandal.

The two newspapers put out corrections following false information that they published regarding PMU 18. Why, then, are government officials are still trying to pursue Chien and Hai’s cases?

According to our media law, certain kinds of information require more than just corrections.

The papers had corrected their information, but still, we need to look deeper into the case.

Do you think that the arrest will discourage other reporters from pursuing their stories? Will the association support its members if needed?

I don’t think the case will have a negative effect on other reporters.

The association is committed to protecting its members under the law.

Several reporters who covered PMU18 said they could not verify their sources. Can you comment on that?

It’s the media’s responsibility to verify the sources of the information being provided to the public.

But government offices rarely want to provide any kind of information to media outlets.

Isn’t this a contradiction?

How is that a contradiction? It’s our job to dig up information.

Journalists must be careful with corruption, says writers’ association leader

The following are excerpts from an interview with the vice chairman of Vietnam Literature Writers’ Association Nguyen Tri Huan:

Thanh Nien: What are your thoughts on the recent arrests of the two reporters who had covered major corruption cases?

Nguyen Tri Huan: It’s such an unfortunate incident, happening right at a time when our government has vowed to battle corruption even harder.

It also comes just as the country has begun hosting the 2008 Vesak Day – an international event being covered by foreign media.

I think the arrests will taint the country’s image – domestically and internationally.

Do you think the investigators gathered enough evidence before the arrest Monday?

I personally think that even if reporters Nguyen Viet Chien (Thanh Nien) and Nguyen Van Hai (Tuoi Tre) did provide false information during their coverage, they don’t deserve to be in custody.

During Thanh Nien’s coverage of PMU18 case, the paper published corrections immediately after any mistakes were made.

Why are they still arresting the reporters?

Will the arrest affect other writers and reporters – those who might want to write about corruption but will now perhaps be too afraid to do so?

I support these writers but what happened to Chien should remind other journalists to be extremely careful when they report.

They must make sure they use accurate information.

Vietnam latest news – Thanh Nien Daily

Vietnam deports American pro-democracy activist

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Vietnam has deported an American man of Vietnamese origin who was sentenced to six months in jail on terrorism charges for planning to circulate anti-government pamphlets, state media said Sunday.

Nguyen Quoc Quan, a mathematician from Sacramento, Calif., was expelled from Ho Chi Minh City on Saturday, the Vietnam News Agency reported.

Quan was among several people arrested last November in a house in the city. Authorities said they were preparing to circulate anti-government pamphlets on behalf of Viet Tan, a California-based group that Vietnam considers a terrorist organization.

Viet Tan says it promotes nonviolent political change in Communist Vietnam. U.S. Ambassador Michael Michalak has said he has seen no evidence the group is engaged in terrorism.

Also arrested in November were American citizen Truong Van Ba from Hawaii and French journalist Nguyen Thi Thanh Van. Ba, whose American name is Leon Truong, and Van were released in December.

Vietnamese authorities have said Quan entered the country on a forged Cambodian passport. He was sentenced Tuesday, then deported after being given credit for time served while awaiting trial.

Vietnam does not tolerate dissent, which it considers a threat to its one-party rule.

The Associated Press: Vietnam deports American pro-democracy activist