Foreign donors criticised Vietnam Friday for punishing graft-busting journalists and urged the communist government to instead go after the “big fish” in its anti-corruption drive.
Diplomats speaking at the annual Anti-Corruption Dialogue meeting focused on the jailing last month of newspaper journalist Nguyen Viet Chien who had helped uncover a major corruption scandal three years ago.
Swiss ambassador Jean-Hubert Lebet said the case was “devastating” for Vietnam’s media and for the country’s image, because it sent the signal that “if somebody is reporting on corruption, he goes to jail”.
Chien helped drive media reporting on the so-called PMU 18 scandal, named after a transport ministry road-building unit whose officials pilfered millions in foreign aid and bet much of it on football matches.
In the wake of the scandal, the government in 2006 vowed to crack down on the widespread scourge of corruption, an effort that was cheered by the international community and foreign business groups.
But in May this year Chien and another journalist were arrested and they were convicted last month, along with their police sources, in a case that sent a chill through the country’s state-controlled media industry.
Chien, an award-winning veteran reporter with the popular Thanh Nien daily, received two years’ prison for the vague charge of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state”.
Dutch Charge d’Affaires Bengt van Loosdrecht said at the Hanoi meeting Friday that “if the conduct of the media is too easily criminalised they may feel hampered to exercise their tasks professionally.
“Journalists need full access to information and sufficient self confidence to express themselves freely without risking punishment.”
Van Loosdrecht added that the convictions gave the impression that “the media are bigger criminals than the officials that have embezzled the money”.
Vietnam’s one-party government maintains it is serious about fighting corruption and about allowing the media to expose graft but insists the journalists were punished for breaking the law.
“Journalists have committed crimes in some cases and when they commit crimes they must be punished under the criminal law,” Do Quy Doan, the deputy minister of information and communication, told the meeting.
The sudden state backlash against the PMU 18 case reporters has left many Vietnamese journalists feeling “tired and dismayed” said one reporter who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity.
Some observers believe the journalists are pawns in a larger powerplay between rival factions in the government leadership.
Pascal Fabie, Asia Pacific director for Transparency International, said the corruption watchdog would like to see “the anti-corruption efforts target the right people and not shoot the messenger”.
“We would like to see that the big fish are fried as well as the small fish,” Fabie said during the Anti-Corruption Dialogue meeting. “We would like to see the anti-corruption fight reach all citizens in the country.”
Vietnam’s government, meanwhile, this week moved against two more journalists, dismissing the editor-in-chief and his deputy at the Dai Doan Ket (Great Unity) daily.
Authorities did not publicise the reason but sources say the editors’ crime was to publish articles and letters critical of government and party decisions.
One year ago war hero General Vo Nguyen Giap in a letter to the paper criticised a decision to demolish the National Assembly and rebuild it even though remains of Hanoi’s ancient citadel had been discovered on the site.