Officials in Vietnam deny beating AP reporter

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) — Vietnamese officials have denied beating an Associated Press reporter in Vietnam while he covered a Catholic prayer vigil in the communist country.

The denial comes a day after Ben Stocking, the Hanoi bureau chief for The Associated Press, was released from police custody after about 2 1/2 hours and required four stitches on the back of his head. His camera was confiscated by police.

Vietnam’s foreign ministry spokesman Le Dung posted a statement Saturday on the ministry’s web site that said, “Stocking broke the Vietnamese law by deliberately taking pictures at a place where taking pictures was not allowed.”

“There was no beating of Mr. Ben Stocking by the Vietnamese security force,” the statement said.

The Associated Press: Officials in Vietnam deny beating AP reporter

More information and video of arrest

AP reporter detained, beaten by police in Vietnam

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) — An Associated Press reporter in Vietnam was punched, choked and hit over the head with a camera by police who detained him Friday while he covered a Catholic prayer vigil in the communist country.

Ben Stocking, the Hanoi bureau chief for The Associated Press, was released from police custody after about 2 1/2 hours and required four stitches on the back of his head. His camera was confiscated by police.

“They told me I was taking pictures in a place that I was not allowed to be taking pictures. But it was news, and I went in,” Stocking said by telephone from Hanoi.

Stocking, 49, was covering a demonstration by Catholic priests and church members at the site of the former Vatican Embassy in Hanoi, which is currently the subject of a land dispute between the church and city authorities.

The city had started to clear the site Friday after announcing a day earlier that it planned to use the land for a public library and park — a significant development in an already tense relationship between the church and state in Hanoi.

After Vietnam’s communist government took power in 1954, it confiscated property from many landowners, including the Catholic Church. The church says it has documents showing it has title to the land.

Within minutes of arriving at the prayer vigil, Stocking said, he was escorted away by plainclothes police who took his camera and punched and kicked him when he asked for it back.

Taken to a police station for questioning, Stocking tried to reach for his camera and an officer “banged me on the head with the camera and another police officer punched me in the face, straight on.” The blow from the camera opened a gash at the back of his head.

Transferred to another police station to give a written statement, Stocking was permitted to leave with a U.S. Embassy official to be taken to a medical clinic.

The AP is protesting the incident, seeking an apology from Vietnamese authorities involved and insisting on the return of Stocking’s property.

“It is an egregious incident of police abuse and unacceptable treatment of a journalist by any civilized government authority,” said John Daniszewski, the AP’s managing editor for international news. “Ben Stocking was doing his job in a calm, reasonable and professional manner when he was escorted away and violently assaulted.”

U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Angela Aggeler said a formal statement of protest was filed with the Foreign Ministry.

The Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to e-mail and telephone requests by the AP seeking comment.

Violence is rare against international journalists in Vietnam, which has strict controls that govern press activities and travel. Foreign media have to register with the Foreign Ministry and get permission to go to remote provinces.

The first portion of Stocking’s arrest was captured by an anonymous cameraman and posted on YouTube.

The Associated Press: AP reporter detained, beaten by police in Vietnam

Focus on Vietnam’s press freedom


Journalist Nguyen Viet Chien is escorted away by police on 12 May 2008

Nguyen Viet Chien (L) is one of two journalists arrested last month

Vietnam’s patchy record of media freedom was in the spotlight again this week when a meeting of international donors urged the country to expand press liberties.

Foreign representatives at the Third Dialogue on Anti-Corruption in Hanoi expressed their concern about last month’s arrest of two well-known local journalists, fearing that it could set a “bad precedent” for the future reporting of corruption cases.

Nguyen Van Hai, 33, and Nguyen Viet Chien, 56, are in jail and under investigation for their reports on one of the most notorious scandals in Vietnam, where millions of dollars of public funds were used to bet on European football matches.

The scandal, dubbed the PMU-18 case, broke in 2006 and led to the arrest of a number of high-ranking government officials, including a vice minister of transport. The minister, Dao Dinh Binh, was forced to resign.

Newspapers were praised by the authorities at the time for their detailed coverage of the scandal.

No-one paid attention to the fact that long before the investigations were completed, the newspapers had already accused the jailed officials of all kinds of wrong-doing and described them as villains.

‘Abuse of power’

The case took an unexpected turn this March when Vice-Minister Nguyen Viet Tien, who was already on bail, was cleared from any criminal responsibilities and exempted from prosecution.

Vietnamese media showed images of the victorious Mr Tien appearing from the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office. He vowed to make a come-back.

A reader looks at the Thanh Nien daily on 13 May 2008

The journalists worked for two of Vietnam’s most prominent dailies

Less than two months later, Mr Hai and Mr Chien, from Tuoi Tre and Thanh Nien newspapers respectively, were arrested for “inaccurate reporting and abuse of power”.

A police general who allegedly provided information to the journalists was also prosecuted but not detained.

Public speculation ran rife over the apparently powerful connections of Mr Tien, who was once a rising star in the regime.

Vengeful or not, it seemed the state apparatus had got the upper hand.

Local media, which devoted detailed coverage to the journalists’ detention, fell silent after three days.

It is thought that the powerful ideological department of the Communist Party has ordered newspaper editors not to write anymore about the topic.

Two newspapers that continued reporting on the subject reportedly received a warning from the authorities.

Even when visiting US Assistant Secretary of State David Kramer raised concerns over the arrests, his words were omitted in the local press.

Ironically, while agitating about the media’s role in the fight against corruption on the occasion of the recent Anti-Corruption Dialogue, all newspapers chose to ignore their colleagues’ names.


‘Very tense’

But the arrest of the two journalists remains one of the hottest topics of discussion on online forums and among the public, especially because of the fact that Tuoi Tre and Thanh Nien are two of the best-selling newspapers in Vietnam.

People reached out to foreign media organisations, such as the BBC, to express their anger and frustration.

An outspoken lawyer, Cu Huy Ha Vu, said: “The mafia are retaliating against the anti-corruption force. This arrest shows that our anti-corruption battle is going downhill.”

According to Vietnam’s criminal law, the two journalists can be held for four months before being brought to court. If found guilty, they face prison terms of one year as a minimum.

A reporter, who wished to stay anonymous, said: “The whole media scene in Vietnam is very tense at the moment.”

Another journalist wrote on his private blog: “The arrest made people think that those who fight against corruption now face repercussion themselves. It is impossible to explain why two leading anti-corruption reporters are jailed.”

‘Too powerful’

But there are some who think that it is about time that Vietnamese journalists reconsider their working ethics.

Hong Anh, a Hanoi resident, said he was shocked when he first heard about the detention of the journalists.

“But maybe the prosecutors have good reasons to press charges after all,” he said. “Some reporters have become so powerful, even corrupt. If they don’t like you, they could destroy your business in no time by writing negative reports.”

“And they nearly never apologise for false reporting,” he added.

Poet Bui Chi Vinh, who worked for Tuoi Tre newspaper during its early days, was even stronger with his words.

In an interview with the BBC, he said: “Anti-corruption has become a kind of modern-time mantra. Everyone is against corruption in Vietnam nowadays.

“It can be used to cover up wrong-doings,” he argued.

“A lot of other reporters had got into trouble, even eliminated, for fighting corruption but who was there to protect them?”

US Raises Reporters’ Arrests in Human Rights Dialogue with Vietnam

HANOI, May 30 (Reuters) – The United States is concerned about the arrests of two Vietnamese journalists whose reporting on a corruption scandal rippled through the ruling Communist Party, an American human rights envoy said on Friday.

“We stress that journalists need to be able to report and write and broadcast without concern for their safety and without concern for their being arrested every time they may report on a sensitive matter,” diplomat David Kramer said after an annual meeting with the Hanoi government on human rights.

The arrests on May 12 sparked complaints from fellow journalists and the public, especially as the state-run media was encouraged to be part of a campaign against graft, which is cited as discouraging investment and hampering development in the Southeast Asian country of 85 million.

The newspaper reporters’ stories of bribery, corruption and gambling in a transport ministry scandal rocked the Party in 2006 and led to the resignation of the transport minister.

An agency that builds roads and bridges with foreign aid has been investigated since 2005 after officials were accused of embezzling state money and using it for lavish lifestyles and betting on European soccer.

Reporters Nguyen Van Hai, 33, of Tuoi Tre (Youth) and Nguyen Viet Chien, 56, of Thanh Nien (Young People), were among the most prolific on the story about the agency known as PMU 18.

After they were indicted for “abuse of power”, their newspapers ran headlines calling for them to be freed from detention during the police investigation.

Reporting on the case has stopped and several other journalists have been questioned.

Kramer, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, said that during his visit he also met activists critical of the government, some of whom live under restrictions.

He noted that Vietnam was making legal reforms and revising its criminal code.

“We hope the pace of human rights in Vietnam keeps up with the pace of economic growth,” Kramer said.

The Vietnam government has opened its economy and foreign policy to the world, but it maintains control over media and does not tolerate challenges to one-party rule. In the past year it has arrested and tried several political and religious activists.

Country’s Media Condemn Journalists’ Arrests

The arrests of two local reporters last week for “abusing their power” by allegedly misreporting a major corruption scandal have led to an unusual confrontation between Vietnam’s government and the country’s state-controlled newspapers, says the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA).

Nguyen Van Hai of the newspaper “Tuoi Tre” (“Youth”) and Nguyen Viet Chen of the rival newspaper “Thanh Nien” (“Young People”) broke a story in 2005 about senior government officials allegedly embezzling funds to wager on European football matches. The story led to the resignation of the transportation minister and other high officials in 2006. Nguyen Van Hai and Nguyen Viet Chen could be held for as long as four months while authorities investigate, says Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Vietnamese newspapers are generally deferential to the government, which controls most of the nation’s media. But last week’s arrests unleashed a deluge of protests from journalists and bloggers, who said the detentions would discourage aggressive reporting on corruption.

“Honest journalists must be freed,” read a bold headline in “Thanh Nien”, the flagship publication of the Vietnam National Youth Foundation, where Nguyen Viet Chen worked until he was jailed. The paper is demanding that he is allowed bail, reports SEAPA.

“Tuoi Tre” published a story on 14 May saying it was inundated by phone calls, emails and letters from angry citizens protesting the government’s move – the most it had received in 33 years of publication.

The English edition of highlighted the story and solicited mostly supportive views from politicians, lawyers and fellow journalists. National Assembly Deputy Duong Trung Quoc was puzzled as to why the government was “shooting” the messenger while on an anti-corruption drive.

The arrests also point to a worrying trend of the authorities detaining, harassing and jailing journalists in Vietnam using criminal and national security laws, say the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and RSF.

On 13 May, Somsak Khunmi (Nguyen Quoc Hai), a long-time news assistant and contributor to Chan Troi Moi (Radio New Horizon) was sentenced to nine months in prison on terrorism charges. He was detained last November along with French-Vietnamese reporter Nguyen Thi Thanh Van and a group of political activists working for the pro-democracy Viet Tan (Vietnam Reform Party). Nguyen was released in December following international pressure.

Authorities say Somsak is being detained for attempting to distribute pro-democracy fliers, a violation of Vietnam’s penal code. But CPJ believes his detention has more to do with his and Nguyen’s reporting on an earlier protest held in Ho Chi Minh City by aggrieved farmers who had been pushed off their land by state authorities.

Bui Kim Thanh, a blogger, dissident and lawyer suffered a similar fate for defending women farmers made homeless by illegal land grabs, says International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC). Police stormed her house and detained her in a psychiatric hospital in March – for the second time.

Also in March, freelance journalist and a member of the banned Bloc 8406 pro-democracy movement Truong Minh Duc was given a five-year jail sentence on charges of “taking advantage of democratic rights to act against the state’s interests” and “receiving money from abroad to support complaints against the state”, reports RSF. He often wrote about corruption and abuse of authorities for newspapers and websites in Vietnam and abroad.

The Beijing Games has also been a flashpoint in Vietnam. According to RSF, a Vietnamese government website stated that Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung had called for “absolute security” during the Olympic torch relay in Ho Chi Minh City and warned against “hostile forces” that were ready to disturb the peace.

A leading blogger who posted entries on his blog about worldwide demonstrations against the Olympics was kept under close police surveillance and arrested just days before the Ho Chi Minh leg of the relay for taking part in protests against Chinese policy, reports RSF. Nguyen Hoang Hai, better known by his blogging pseudonym of Dieu Cay, was charged with tax fraud, “just a pretext to prevent one of Vietnam’s most influential bloggers from continuing to post comments critical of the government,” RSF says.

And U.S. journalist Le Hong Thien was seized by security police in Ho Chi Minh City while covering the torch relay itself, says RSF. Thien is the editor of the US-based magazine “Gia Dinh”, a reporter on the “Viet Times Weekly”, and contributor to Radio New Horizon. He is currently under house arrest at his brother’s home and his passport has been confiscated. He has not yet been charged.

According to RSF, at least nine journalists and cyber-dissidents are currently in prison in Vietnam.

Visit these links:
– RSF on Dieu Cay:
– RSF on Nguyen Van Hai, Nguyen Viet Chen and Le Hong Thien:
– RSF on Truong Minh Duc:
– CPJ:
– WiPC:
– IFEX Vietnam page:
– AP via ABC News:

(20 May 2008)

Two Vietnamese journalists under arrest, US colleague under house arrest

Reporters Without Borders today strongly condemned the arrest in Hanoi yesterday of two Vietnamese journalists, accused of “misuse of power”. It also spoke out against the house arrest of US journalist of Vietnamese origin, Le Hong Thien, who was in the country to cover the Olympic torch relay.

Nguyen Van Hai of the newspaper Tuoi Tre and Nguyen Viet Chen of the newspaper Thanh Nien, who at the end of 2005 investigated a major official corruption case, were arrested for “misuse of power and authority”. Several local media said they were being held in preventive detention for a period of four months. The corruption case, which was widely covered by the national press, resulted in the conviction of around a dozen political figures, including the transport minister. The managements of the two newspapers hit by arrests were at a loss to explain the reaction of the authorities. “Of the around one hundred papers which carried articles on this case, the authorities have only made charges involving two,” they said.

US journalist Le Hong Thien (pen-name: Tran Huu Thien), who came to Ho Chi Minh City on 27 April to cover the Olympic torch relay, was arrested at the beginning of May. His US passport has been confiscated and he has been placed under house arrest at his brother’s home. For the last two weeks, he has been questioned on a daily basis. Le Hong Thien is the editor of the US-published magazine Gia Dinh, a reporter on the Viet Times Weekly, and contributor to Radio New Horizon, which broadcasts inside Vietnam.

Vietnam media decry reporters’ arrests

By BEN STOCKING – 14 May 2008

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — The arrests of two Vietnamese reporters for their coverage of a bribery, gambling and corruption scandal have led to a highly unusual confrontation between Vietnam’s Communist government and the country’s state-controlled newspapers.

“Honest journalists must be freed,” blared a bold headline in Wednesday’s Thanh Nien (Young People) newspaper, where one of the reporters worked until he was jailed Monday.

Vietnamese newspapers are generally deferential to the government, which controls all of the nation’s media. But this week’s arrests unleashed a torrent of protests from journalists and bloggers, who said the detentions would discourage aggressive reporting on corruption, one of Vietnam’s most urgent problems.

Sparking their outrage were the arrests Monday of Nguyen Viet Chien of Thanh Nien and Nguyen Van Hai of Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.

Authorities also arrested one police investigator and interrogated another who were accused of providing false information to the journalists.

The reporters are accused of “abuse of authority” for allegedly inaccurate reporting on a major corruption scandal that led to the resignation of the transportation minister in 2006.

Tuoi Tre published a story Wednesday saying it was inundated by phone calls, e-mails and letters from angry citizens protesting the government’s move — the most it had received in 33 years of publication.

The scandal, which erupted in 2005, led to the conviction of nine people, including several government officials. They were found guilty of illegally betting millions of dollars on European football matches and trying to bribe people to cover up their crime.

Authorities suspected they embezzled the money from a unit of the ministry that managed major road and bridge building projects. The unit received substantial funding from the World Bank and Japan.

Government officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Authorities have not disclosed the specifics of the charges against the two journalists, or specified which aspects of their aggressive reporting were allegedly inaccurate.

In its report Wednesday, Tuoi Tre quoted a Hanoi attorney who said this week’s arrests had raised concerns that “journalists and newspapers will be less aggressive in their reporting of negative cases.”

Writers across Vietnam’s exploding blogosphere also condemned the arrests.

“There is no worse tragedy for a country than if nobody dares to speak out,” wrote journalist and blogger Vo Thi Hao. “What happened to freedom of the press?”

The Associated Press: Vietnam media decry reporters’ arrests