Hanoi – One of two journalists who went on trial Tuesday in connection with their reporting on a government corruption scandal pled guilty to “abusing democratic freedoms” in a case seen as a bellwether for press freedom in Vietnam. Nguyen Van Hai said he considered accurate the government’s indictment of him. “I have clearly specified that the information in my stories was wrong,” he said.
Nguyen Viet Chien, however, denied breaking the law.
The trial of Hai, 33, and Chien, 56, formerly reporters at the Tuoi Tre and Thanh Nien newspapers, and of their source, former police general Pham Xuan Quac, opened Tuesday at the Hanoi People’s Court and was expected to conclude Wednesday.
Hai and Chien were among those whose reporting in 2006 helped uncover a scandal involving millions of dollars of illegal gambling, kickbacks and embezzlement in the Transport Ministry.
The scandal, which was extensively covered in Vietnam’s media, led to the resignation of the minister and the arrest of dozens of officials, including then-deputy minister Nguyen Viet Tien.
On March 28, Tien was acquitted and reinstated as a member of Vietnam’s Communist Party. Six weeks later, Hai and Chien were arrested along with their source Quang, 62, who had worked on the case.
Their arrests led to unprecedented protests by journalists and members of the public.
In a subsequent crackdown, the deputy editors of Thanh Nien and Tuoi Tre were stripped of their press cards. The Vietnamese press has reported cautiously on the trials since.
Quac has been charged with eight counts of disclosing state secrets. The law under which the journalists have been charged criminalizes “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state, the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens.”
It has been used in recent years to prosecute independent labour activists in Ho Chi Minh City and police officers in Danang who accused local officials of corruption.
It carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.
While Hai said information in his reports was wrong, Chien said he had verified a report that a Transport Ministry official had paid a 500,000-dollar bribe to escape prosecution and that the rest of his information had come directly from police investigators like Quac.
“I don’t think the information general Quac gave me is on any list of secret state documents,” Chien said.
Quac denied he had supplied secret information to journalists, but most of the journalists involved in reporting the case have testified that Quac served as a source.
In addition to raising concerns about press freedom, the case has called into question Vietnam’s commitment to fighting corruption.
Transparency International ranks Vietnam 123rd out of 179 countries on its index of global corruption, in which the 179th country is ranked the most corrupt.