HANOI (AFP) — Vietnam on Tuesday put on trial two reporters who helped expose state corruption, in a case seen as a test on the limits of media freedom in the communist country.
The two newspaper journalists each face up to seven years in prison for “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state” in the Hanoi People’s Court hearing.
They helped expose a major graft scandal in a transport ministry unit, known as PMU 18, where officials pilfered development funds meant for roads and bridges and bet much of it on European football.
The aggressive reporting in a country where all media, and the courts, remain under the control of the one-party state was praised by foreign observers and spurred state promises of a major anti-corruption drive.
The scandal led to the resignation in 2006 of then transport minister Dao Dinh Binh and the arrest of his deputy, Nguyen Viet Tien, while eight PMU 18 officials were jailed last year for illegal gambling and corruption.
The case, however, took an unexpected turn when Tien was freed from prison last October and cleared of all charges in March.
In May police arrested the two journalists — Nguyen Van Hai, 33, of the Tuoi Tre (Youth) daily, and Nguyen Viet Chien, 56, of the Thanh Nien (Young People) newspaper — initially accusing them of “abuse of power.”
On trial with them are two senior police officers accused of feeding them information — General Pham Xuan Quac, 62, and Senior Lieutenant Colonel Dinh Van Huynh, 50, who also face up to seven years in jail.
Prosecutors cited as evidence telephone records and more than 1,200 stories by 40 reporters.
One prosecutor, while cross-examining Chien, said all interviews of the police sources were illegal under Vietnamese press law because “journalists are not allowed to receive information from unauthorised sources.”
The state argued that the reports contained errors, were biased and had tarnished the images of officials, the country and its leadership ahead of a five-yearly party congress in early 2006.
“Hostile forces, reactionaries and political opportunists took advantage of the case to increase their counter-activities, asking for a change in leadership in the party and state apparatus, stirring up activities to disturb security and order and harming preparations for the 10th party congress,” said the prosecution brief.
The arrests have sent a chill through the Vietnamese media, which initially protested but, following stern warnings from the authorities, fell silent after two days.
Several more journalists at the two leading newspapers have been replaced or had their press credentials withdrawn.
Some foreign diplomats and media were allowed to follow the journalists’ trial, scheduled to run for two days, via closed-circuit television.
Scores of Vietnamese journalists stood outside the court — some carrying flowers for their colleagues on trial, others comforting the reporters’ tearful relatives when they emerged during a break.
One unauthorised blogger told the journalists “We are always on your side,” and the authorities: “You may have their bodies, but not their souls.”
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.”
AFP: Vietnam journalists on trial for exposing state corruption