The arrests of two local reporters last week for “abusing their power” by allegedly misreporting a major corruption scandal have led to an unusual confrontation between Vietnam’s government and the country’s state-controlled newspapers, says the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA).
Nguyen Van Hai of the newspaper “Tuoi Tre” (“Youth”) and Nguyen Viet Chen of the rival newspaper “Thanh Nien” (“Young People”) broke a story in 2005 about senior government officials allegedly embezzling funds to wager on European football matches. The story led to the resignation of the transportation minister and other high officials in 2006. Nguyen Van Hai and Nguyen Viet Chen could be held for as long as four months while authorities investigate, says Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
Vietnamese newspapers are generally deferential to the government, which controls most of the nation’s media. But last week’s arrests unleashed a deluge of protests from journalists and bloggers, who said the detentions would discourage aggressive reporting on corruption.
“Honest journalists must be freed,” read a bold headline in “Thanh Nien”, the flagship publication of the Vietnam National Youth Foundation, where Nguyen Viet Chen worked until he was jailed. The paper is demanding that he is allowed bail, reports SEAPA.
“Tuoi Tre” published a story on 14 May saying it was inundated by phone calls, emails and letters from angry citizens protesting the government’s move – the most it had received in 33 years of publication.
The English edition of Vietnam.net highlighted the story and solicited mostly supportive views from politicians, lawyers and fellow journalists. National Assembly Deputy Duong Trung Quoc was puzzled as to why the government was “shooting” the messenger while on an anti-corruption drive.
The arrests also point to a worrying trend of the authorities detaining, harassing and jailing journalists in Vietnam using criminal and national security laws, say the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and RSF.
On 13 May, Somsak Khunmi (Nguyen Quoc Hai), a long-time news assistant and contributor to Chan Troi Moi (Radio New Horizon) was sentenced to nine months in prison on terrorism charges. He was detained last November along with French-Vietnamese reporter Nguyen Thi Thanh Van and a group of political activists working for the pro-democracy Viet Tan (Vietnam Reform Party). Nguyen was released in December following international pressure.
Authorities say Somsak is being detained for attempting to distribute pro-democracy fliers, a violation of Vietnam’s penal code. But CPJ believes his detention has more to do with his and Nguyen’s reporting on an earlier protest held in Ho Chi Minh City by aggrieved farmers who had been pushed off their land by state authorities.
Bui Kim Thanh, a blogger, dissident and lawyer suffered a similar fate for defending women farmers made homeless by illegal land grabs, says International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC). Police stormed her house and detained her in a psychiatric hospital in March – for the second time.
Also in March, freelance journalist and a member of the banned Bloc 8406 pro-democracy movement Truong Minh Duc was given a five-year jail sentence on charges of “taking advantage of democratic rights to act against the state’s interests” and “receiving money from abroad to support complaints against the state”, reports RSF. He often wrote about corruption and abuse of authorities for newspapers and websites in Vietnam and abroad.
The Beijing Games has also been a flashpoint in Vietnam. According to RSF, a Vietnamese government website stated that Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung had called for “absolute security” during the Olympic torch relay in Ho Chi Minh City and warned against “hostile forces” that were ready to disturb the peace.
A leading blogger who posted entries on his blog about worldwide demonstrations against the Olympics was kept under close police surveillance and arrested just days before the Ho Chi Minh leg of the relay for taking part in protests against Chinese policy, reports RSF. Nguyen Hoang Hai, better known by his blogging pseudonym of Dieu Cay, was charged with tax fraud, “just a pretext to prevent one of Vietnam’s most influential bloggers from continuing to post comments critical of the government,” RSF says.
And U.S. journalist Le Hong Thien was seized by security police in Ho Chi Minh City while covering the torch relay itself, says RSF. Thien is the editor of the US-based magazine “Gia Dinh”, a reporter on the “Viet Times Weekly”, and contributor to Radio New Horizon. He is currently under house arrest at his brother’s home and his passport has been confiscated. He has not yet been charged.
According to RSF, at least nine journalists and cyber-dissidents are currently in prison in Vietnam.
Visit these links:
– SEAPA: http://www.seapabkk.org/
– RSF on Dieu Cay: http://tinyurl.com/48j34z
– RSF on Nguyen Van Hai, Nguyen Viet Chen and Le Hong Thien: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=27023
– RSF on Truong Minh Duc: http://tinyurl.com/4hezgj
– CPJ: http://tinyurl.com/4wyxxj
– WiPC: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/93095/
– IFEX Vietnam page: http://tinyurl.com/3swwm3
– Vietnam.net: http://tinyurl.com/3pbkq3
– AP via ABC News: http://tinyurl.com/3zyuy3
(20 May 2008)