15 October 2008
A Vietnamese court has convicted two journalists for their reporting on a prominent corruption case. The journalists had reported aggressively on a scandal involving millions of dollars in illegal gambling and embezzlement. Their arrests are seen as a sign that Vietnam is clamping down on freedom of the press. In Hanoi, Matt Steinglass has more.
|A man standing in front of the Hanoi People’s Court holds a copy of Thanh Nien daily, October 15, 2008|
In early 2006, Nguyen Viet Chien and Nguyen Van Hai were top reporters at two of the most progressive newspapers in Vietnam. The country’s new prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, had called on the media to help the government root out corruption.
Chien and Hai took up the call. They wrote hard-hitting articles on what is called the PMU-18 affair, a scandal in which officials embezzled millions of dollars and bet it on European soccer matches. The scandal led to the resignation of the Transportation minister and the prosecution of a deputy minister for corruption.
But in March 2008, that deputy minister was acquitted. Six weeks later, Chien and Hai were arrested, along with two police investigators they had used as sources, General Pham Xuan Quac and Colonel Dinh Van Huynh.
|Vietnamese journalists Nguyen Van Hai of the Tuoi Tre newspaper, back left, Nguyen Viet Chien of Thanh Nien newspaper, back right, and police officers Dinh Van Huynh, front left, and Pham Xuan Quac, front right, at their trial in Hanoi, Oct. 15, 2008|
On Tuesday, they went on trial in Hanoi. Prosecutors said the articles were inaccurate and charged them with breaking a law that bars “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State.”
Hai acknowledged part of the charges. He said some of the information printed in his stories was wrong, but he did not know it at the time.
Chien, however, vigorously denied the charges. He said most of the charges against him relate to an article accusing a former Transportation Ministry official of paying $500,000 in bribes to senior government officials to avoid prosecution. Chien says the article is accurate.
In any case, Chien said, everything he wrote was based on material provided to him by police sources, notably General Quac. None of it, he said was a state secret.
For his part, Quac denied the charges against him of “deliberately disclosing work secrets”. He said he still does not believe that he deliberately disclosed work secrets.
The two journalists’ arrests provoked unprecedented criticism from Vietnamese journalists and citizens. Their editors denounced the arrests, and thousands of citizens wrote to the newspapers praising the reporters for their fight against corruption.
But government censors barred the papers from reporting on the cases. In August, the government stripped seven editors and journalists of their press cards for protesting the arrests.
On Wednesday, the court pronounced its verdict.
|Reporter Nguyen Van Hai (r), 33, of the Tuoi Tre newspaper during his trial at Hanoi People’s Court, 15 Oct., 2008|
The court found both journalists guilty. Chien received two years in prison. Hai received one year’s probation, which, after deducting time already served, means he is a free man.
Both police officers were convicted as well. While Huynh was sentenced to a year in jail, General Quac was let go with a warning.
A small crowd gathered outside the courthouse to support the journalists. One Hanoi resident’s reaction to the verdict was bitter. She said she doesn’t think the trial was fair. People who fight corruption were put in prison, while the corrupt people go free.