Hanoi – A Hanoi court on Wednesday convicted two journalists of “abusing democratic freedoms” for their reporting on a corruption scandal in the country’s transportation ministry, in a case decried by press freedom organisations and Vietnamese journalists.
Two police investigators who had served as sources for the journalists were also convicted of “disclosing work secrets”, by the Hanoi People’s Court.
The court sentenced journalists Nguyen Viet Chien, 56, to two years in prison, and Nguyen Van Hai, 33, to one year on probation.
Former police colonel Dinh Van Huynh received a one-year sentence, while his superior, former police general Pham Xuan Quac, was freed with a warning.
Hai and Chien, formerly reporters at the Tuoi Tre and Thanh Nien newspapers, were among those who in 2006 reported on a scandal involving millions of dollars worth 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.
In March, 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.
The indictments said a series of articles the two journalists wrote were inaccurate, including one claiming that a Transport Ministry official had spent $500 000 bribing a list of 40 senior government officials in order to avoid prosecution.
‘It’s an unfair charge’
The law under which the journalists have been charged criminalises “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state, the legitimate rights and interests of organisations 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.
The journalists’ arrest in May became a cause célèbre among Vietnamese journalists and the public, leading to unprecedented critiques in the press.
After a crackdown in August, where a number of journalists were stripped of their press cards, the Vietnamese press, which is subject to government control, has reported cautiously on the trials, and carried no news of them on Wednesday morning.
Among a crowd of several dozen who stood outside the courthouse throughout the trial, many denounced the charges.
“It’s an unfair charge,” said Hanoi resident Le Thu Huong, 47. “People who fight against corruption are put in prison, but people involved in corruption go free.”
A Vietnamese journalist, who asked that his name not be used, noted that authorities had jammed cellphone signals in the area around the courthouse.
During the trial, Chien strongly protested his innocence, while Hai admitted that at least one article he wrote had been inaccurate, as charged.
“If I had committed corruption, taken bribes, et cetera, I would be ready to be punished,” Chien told the court. “But now I feel very bitter and anguished to be an anti-corruption journalist.”