Shooting the messenger | The Economist

May 22nd 2008 | BANGKOK
From The Economist print edition

The press fights back as two graft-busting reporters are arrested

THE leaders of Vietnam’s Communist Party say they are conducting a “no holds barred” crackdown on corruption in public life. They implore the country’s newspapers to sniff out and expose the fiddles of officials. In February the party chief, Nong Duc Manh, praised the press for unmasking graft and thereby fulfilling “the people’s desires”. The most notable case was a scandal at the transport ministry in 2006 in which newspapers revealed how officials had gambled around $750,000 of public money on the outcomes of football matches. In the clean-up that followed, the head of a road-building department at the ministry was jailed, along with seven others.

But recent events have cast doubt on the sincerity of the leadership’s claim to be fighting corruption at all levels. The main charges against Nguyen Viet Tien, a former deputy transport minister, who was the highest-level official to be arrested over the scandal, have been dropped. More worrying still, the two leading investigative reporters who exposed the scandal have been arrested, along with two former policemen who were among their sources, on vague charges of “abuse of power” and publishing false information.

Vietnam’s news media, despite an appearance of diversity, remain tightly controlled: their editors have to be approved by the party and are called in for restrictive “guidance” on what they can report. In recent years they have nonetheless been allowed to publish an increasing amount of criticism of government policy—though it always falls short of questioning the party’s “right” to rule. The arrested reporters work for two newspapers, Thanh Nien and Tuoi Tre, that were especially fearless in exposing official corruption.

In an unprecedented show of defiance, both newspapers are standing by their reporters. Thanh Nien has run an editorial demanding: “Free the honest journalists.” It says it has been “swamped” with messages of support from the public and some National Assembly members. It challenges the authorities to explain why, if the offending articles had been so inaccurate, none of the police, prosecutors and the ministry of public security had got around to pointing out the errors at any time in the past two years.

It remains unclear why the authorities have suddenly turned against the graft-busters. Were they getting too close to an even bigger scandal? Are party bosses trying to send a message that those above a certain level in the hierarchy are untouchable? Or could it be a visible symptom of strife between reformers and hardliners in the party hierarchy? “People feel that the journalists are maybe the pawns in some larger game but it’s not clear what that might be yet,” says Catherine McKinley, a media analyst in Hanoi.

The Communist Party, like its Chinese counterpart, seems to have won the people’s grudging acceptance for having delivered impressively rapid economic development since ditching collectivism over 20 years ago. Now, however, it is battling against roaring inflation and an incipient balance-of-payments crisis. It may need to take unpopular but vital measures; and economic growth may have to be sacrificed temporarily to restore stability. So the party’s bosses will need the public’s forbearance. One good way to forfeit it is to victimise those who have spearheaded the fight against corruption.

Vietnam | Shooting the messenger | Economist.com

Vietnam to permit (some) foreigners to own property

25 May 2008

Martha Ann Overland writes from Hanoi:

Vietnam’s National Assembly has voted to allow foreigners to buy property but when it goes into effect next year there will be limits on who is affected and what they can buy.

The resolution passed May 22 limits ownership to foreigners who meet specific residence and professional criteria, according to the official Vietnam News Agency. And eligible buyers will be allowed to purchase only apartments, not houses or land.

Under the new rules, individuals who qualify include expatriates investing in the country, foreigners married to Vietnamese and those with university degrees working in specialized fields. A category was created for those who have been decorated by the president of Vietnam and named an honorary citizen.

When the law goes into effect, foreigners will be restricted to apartments in approved housing developments and after 50 years, apartments must be sold or given away. The properties must be occupied by the owners and cannot be used as investments.

While foreigners might find the restrictions less than attractive, the government hopes that it will signal that Vietnam is open for business. “This law, once it takes effect on Jan. 1, 2009, will further promote the development of the real estate market for foreigners in Vietnam,” said Ngo Duc Manh, vice chairman of the National Assembly’s External Committee. “It is a positive signal for foreigners working and living in Vietnam.”

According to the Ministry of Construction, 80,000 foreigners now live and work in Vietnam; about 20,000 of them would be eligible to buy under the new rules. Currently most expatriates prefer to live in villas and detached houses.

Despite the limitations, the change was welcomed by real estate developers who hope additional buyers will help buoy sales. Although apartment prices in urban areas had been rising, the market has softened in the past few months, with prices dropping 20 to 40 percent from their all-time highs.

International Herald Tribune – Vietnam to permit some foreigners to own property