October 15, 2008 – 4:16PM
Vietnam jailed a reporter for two years Wednesday for his coverage of state corruption in a court case that has sent a chill through the communist country’s media industry.
The Hanoi court also imprisoned for one year a senior police officer who had provided information on the graft scandal to the media, but it allowed a police general and a second journalist to walk free.
The jailed reporter, Nguyen Viet Chien, almost three years ago helped pry open the graft case, which centred on a transport ministry unit whose officials had squandered foreign aid on gambling and high living.
The revelations led to a series of arrests and moved anti-corruption to the centre of government policy, while Vietnam earned international plaudits for allowing its state-controlled media unprecedented freedoms.
Then, in May of this year, police arrested two of the journalists who led the coverage on the explosive case — Chien of the Thanh Nien (Young People) newspaper, and Nguyen Van Hai of the Tuoi Tre (Youth) daily.
The deputy editors of the two popular papers were replaced and the Communist Party’s ideology committee has since revoked the press credentials of several more journalists who had jumped to their colleagues’ defence.
On Wednesday, the Hanoi People’s Court found both journalists guilty of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state.”
Chien, a 56-year-old award winning journalist who maintained his innocence throughout the two-day trial, was sentenced to two years in prison, a term that was backdated to the day of his arrest.
Hai, 33, who admitted to some unintended errors in his reporting and at one stage during the hearings broke down in tears, received a more lenient two-year non-custodial term and was allowed to walk free.
The court also convicted the two senior police officers who had given information to the press during the 2005-2006 investigation into the emerging graft scandal in the so-called Project Management Unit (PMU) 18.
Retired police General Pham Xuan Quac, 62, who headed the investigation, received only an official warning, but Lieutenant Colonel Dinh Van Huynh, 50, was sentenced to one year’s jail, also including time served.
Prosecutors argued that the journalists’ reports contained errors and bias and had tarnished the image of officials, party cadres, Vietnam and its leadership, ahead of a five-yearly party congress in early 2006.
The judge, in sentencing, reiterated the prosecution case that “hostile forces, reactionaries and political opportunists” had taken advantage of the scandal to attack Vietnam’s state and party leadership while “stirring up activities to disturb security and order” ahead of the party meeting.
Chien said that until his arrest he had never received a reprimand, defamation suit or complaint from a reader.
“When PMU 18 was discovered, the whole political system of this country was focused on the issue,” he added.
The scandal led to the 2006 resignation of then transport minister Dao Dinh Binh and the arrest of his deputy, Nguyen Viet Tien, while eight PMU 18 officials were later jailed for illegal gambling and corruption.
The deputy minister has since been freed and cleared of all charges.
Foreign diplomats and correspondents were allowed to follow the two-day court proceedings via closed-circuit television, while many more Vietnamese journalists waited on the street outside the court house.
Media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has labelled the trial the state’s “revenge” against two “daring journalists who revealed embarrassing cases and brought greater freedom to the Vietnamese press.”
“It is an insult to justice,” RSF said. “The trial is at the epicentre of an earthquake that has destroyed the still fragile basis of a more independent press wanting to play its role of challenging established authority.”
© 2008 AFP