Vietnam Communist party takes tough stand against critical journalists

Hanoi: Vietnamese Communist Party authorities are to fire two editors at a national newspaper that published articles critical of the government’s policy, sources at the paper said yesterday.

“We have received the Party’s decision to punish us,” said Dang Ngoc, vice editor-in-chief of the newspaper Dai Doan Ket (Great Unity). “The decision said that we had violated Vietnam’s press law.”
Dai Doan Ket is the voice of Vietnam’s Fatherland Front, a powerful patriotic organisation affiliated with the Communist Party.

Ngoc said he and editor-in-chief Ly Tien Dung had been notified of the decision by Fatherland Front Secretary General Vu Trong Kim.

The decision reportedly says the paper violated the press law by publishing three stories that conflicted with government and Communist Party policies.

In early 2007, the paper published a piece by Christian priest and Fatherland Front member Nguyen Thien Cam advocating making the Front independent of the Communist Party.

In November 2007, the paper ran a letter written by war hero General Vo Nguyen Giap, opposing plans to build a new National Assembly building on a site where archaeological remains of Hanoi’s ancient citadel were discovered, leading to months of dispute over the new building in local media.

Finally, an opinion piece by veteran journalist Thai Duy in February argued that the “foreign” character of Soviet-style socialism embraced by Vietnam’s National Assembly in 1975 had alienated the Vietnamese people from the Party.

Vietnam’s government disclaimed responsibility for the firings, saying it was Fatherland Front’s decision.
“We did not intervene,” said vice minister Do Quy Doan of the Ministry of Information and Communications, which oversees Vietnam’s media.

Fatherland Front official Nguyen Van Vinh refused to comment.

“I don’t think the decisions are fair,” said a Dai Doan Ket reporter who declined to be named. “They just aimed to punish brave journalists who dared to point out Vietnam’s social injustices and government authoritarianism.”

The firings at Dai Doan Ket come two weeks after a Vietnamese court sentenced reporter Nguyen Viet Chien to two years in prison, and fellow reporter Nguyen Van Hai to two years of “re-education without detention,” for reporting on a major corruption scandal. – DPA

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Vietnam: Behind the Journalists’ Jailings

Written by Roger Mitton
Friday, 24 October 2008

The Communist Party’s hardliners set out to kill the messenger and dent the prime minister

The conviction of two senior journalists in Hanoi last week had more to do with tussles within the leadership of the ruling Vietnam Communist Party than anything else. The much-derided show trial of the journalists and two anti-corruption investigators indicates the intensity of the conflict between the party’s conservatives and reformists. The loser appears to be Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.

Gathered around Dung is a new breed of reformist technocrats and other advocates of a more open and transparent society. They are mostly from the South and have studied at western universities. Under Dung, this group has spearheaded Vietnam’s move towards a more market-oriented economy with a stress on high growth, greater investment and higher consumer spending.

Opposing them is a larger group of senior leaders, mostly from North and Central Vietnam, and predominantly from the military and security wing of the party, who place national stability above all else. These conservatives regard any reforms, economic or political, with great caution, since in their view they carry an unmistakable threat to the primacy of the party.

Constitutionally, Vietnam is a one-party state. No other political organization is allowed to exist except the Communist Party. And naturally, any event that brings the party into disrepute carries the potential to weaken the public’s acceptance of this absolute rule. And no event in recent years has besmirched the party so much as the PMU-18 scandal two years ago.

Back then, in the run-up to the party’s 10th Congress, police investigators leaked to the media details about how officials at the Ministry of Transport’s Project Management Unit 18 (PMU-18) had skimmed off vast sums of money to gamble on football games in the English Premier League. The PMU-18 head Bui Tien Dung publicly confessed to having used US$2.6 million from ministry funds from the World Bank and Japan for gambling and other illicit activities.

At the time, none of Vietnam’s top leaders suggested that there might be any doubt about the complicity of these transport ministry officials in corrupt practices. It was immediately taken for granted, not just by ordinary people – who, in any case, believe that all party officials from top to bottom are on the take, but also by the national leadership that the officials were guilty and must be punished. So the PMU-18 group were consequently jailed for up to 13 years, while the transport minister was forced to resign and his deputy was detained for further investigation.

The two key police officers who leaked the information to the media said they did so because they knew it was the most expeditious way to galvanize their superiors to take action against the miscreants.

Of course, civic altruism was not the only motive. They and the journalists also knew, given the timing of the leaks, that they were being used to discredit certain figures who were in line for promotion at the 10th Party Congress that April.

After all, corruption is rampant throughout all levels of the party, and provided it is done relatively discreetly and not too excessively, it is tolerated in order that party officials in the military, police and civil service can live comfortably, despite their pitiful official salaries.

The transport minister at the time, Dao Dinh Binh, was already a member of the Party’s key central committee and viewed as a potential Politburo member. His deputy Nguyen Viet Tien, and Maj-Gen. Cao Ngoc Oanh, an associate of the head of the PMU-18 unit Bui Tien Dung, were viewed as favorites to be voted onto the central committee and likely to be promoted to minister and deputy minister of transport, respectively. But after they were publicly fingered in the corruption scandal, their chances of promotion were dead.

As the political analyst Huy Duc noted in his blog, in Vietnam’s factional politics, many officials “use the newspapers as a means to further their own cause.” And they often do that by furthering the demise of their rivals.

To what extent the downfall of the PMU-18 gang was due to their direct involvement in corruption, or to the way their rivals exposed them publicly, is a moot point. But clearly the decision to expose and punish them was a political move that was supported by the reformists, including then-Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and his coterie, which sought to establish their credentials as anti-corruption campaigners.

Indeed, soon after the Congress ended and Dung became PM, he called for the public security ministry to speed up its investigations into high-level corruption by party and state officials. He also called on the media to help the government root out corruption.

That was all well and good and it was widely applauded by the international community. And it was strongly backed by the general public, which was riveted by the PMU-18 case and the way it revealed the widespread nepotism in the appointments of the unit’s staffers – which in turn only confirmed the worst suspicions of the public about the importance of family connections, as opposed to ability, in gaining party promotions. And it was astonishing to have the national press reveal such things as the inexplicable wealth of PMU-18 officials and the way the party’s personnel system had failed to stop – and in some cases had encouraged – the ascent of these rich and dishonest officials.
These shocking revelations were a clear and present threat to the dominant conservative bloc in the party and to all government officials who rely on connections, backhanders, sweetheart deals, nepotistic promotions and the like to survive.

If police investigators were willy-nilly going to be allowed to start leaking information to the media about corrupt practices, then almost every party member was going to be in danger. There was angst. There was anger.

Traditionally, it has been all very well to expose certain mid-rank party members if they have transgressed in an unseemly way and if the party has decided they are expendable; but the decision has always been taken internally by the party before the officials were exposed.

And never, under any circumstances, are central committee members or ministers to be exposed without Politburo approval. The PMU-18 affair broke that code.

Without first obtaining approval from the party leadership, the two key investigators, General Pham Xuan Quac, the head of one of the public security ministry’s investigative departments, and one of his subordinates, Lt-Col Dinh Van Huynh, fed information to the press.

The key journalists receiving the inside dope about the PMU-18 scam were Nguyen Viet Chien and Nguyen Van Hai, who were the deputy editors of two of Vietnam’s best-selling and most highly regarded newspapers, Thanh Nien (Young People) and Tuoi Tre (Youth).

This quartet – the two journalists and the two investigators – were the ones who received their comeuppance last week when the Hanoi People”s Court convicted them of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state” under Article 258 of Vietnam’s Penal Code.

Their real crime, of course, had been to betray a different code, that of not exposing senior party members without first getting approval from the top, and secondly, of getting swept up in party infighting so that they became instruments to bring down certain leaders and thereby allow others to progress.

Of course, there was culpability on both sides. General Quac, the lead leaker, had hoped to be recommended for a post on the central committee in 2006, but he was passed over in favor of others in the public security ministry and so he was naturally disposed to leaking information that would not help his rivals.

Said Professor Nguyen Manh Hung, director of the Indochina Program at George Mason University in the United States: “This whole affair reflects an internal fight within the security ministry.”

Still, no one, not even PM Dung, disputes that there really was rampant corruption within the PMU-18 unit and that the exposé helped root it out. And because of that, the leadership had to let some time pass before they could launch “payback” action against the leakers and the lead journalists who had broken the code.

During that time, while scores of journalists were brought in for questioning about their sources for the PMU-18 story, party insiders say that tussles ensued about how those involved in the exposé should be punished.

It goes without saying that the conservatives, who remain dominant within the party, won out and that despite PM Dung’s personal opposition to the move, a decision was taken to prosecute those who had revealed the scandal.

Of course, the fact that the party boss, General-Secretary Nong Duc Manh, had been personally embarrassed by the affair because his son-in-law Dang Hoang Hai had handled work for the PMU-18 unit meant that some action against the leakers was inevitable.

That said, the extent of that action has surprised many people, especially the two-year jail term given to the much admired veteran journalist Nguyen Viet Chien. As Chien himself said at last week’s trial, his reporting had been motivated not by personal gain, but by the desire “to fight corruption.” Pleading not guilty, he told the court: “The information used in my press articles was provided by police officials.”

Said Professor Hung: “The two journalists got their news from government sources. And when officials contact journalists to publish certain information, it is almost impossible for the journalists to refuse.”

Such arguments did the defendants no good. Nor did it do any good for the other journalists who protested the arrests of their colleagues; that action merely cost them their press credentials. And that further inflamed public outrage.

The Tuoi Tre newspaper, which called the arrests “a mockery of justice,” reported that it had been inundated with phone calls, emails and letters from angry citizens protesting the government’s action – the most it had received in 33 years of publication.

But before passing sentence last week, Judge Tran Van Vy asserted that Chien had published fabricated information that “damaged the prestige of certain high-ranking officers, inciting the population to have a negative opinion of high levels of government.”

Seeking to stem that rising negative opinion, the party’s Commission for Ideology and Culture ordered all local media to curb their reportage of the arrests and to punish any staffers who disobeyed the directive (this resulted in Huynh Kim Sanh being forced to quit his post as Chief Managing Editor of Thanh Nien and Bui Thanh, the deputy editor in chief of Tuoi Tre, being sacked, along with that paper’s Chief Managing Editor Hoang Hai Van).

Said Nguyen Tran Bat, chairman of the Investconsult Group, one of the nation’s largest business advisory companies: “When the government arrests and jails people who were formerly praised for their work in exposing corruption, it is very difficult to understand.”

It is known that PM Dung was contacted and privately expressed sympathy with the protesting editors; but there was clearly little he could do. Vietnam’s journalists are now effectively forbidden from receiving information about corruption among party members.

One prosecutor, when cross-examining Chien, said all interviews with police sources are illegal under Vietnam’s press law because “journalists are not allowed to receive information from unauthorized sources.”

Said Reporters Without Borders: “The outcome of this trial is a terrible step backwards for investigative journalism in Vietnam. The fragile basis of a press capable of playing its role of challenging established authority has been badly shaken.”

Nowadays, even foreign scholars based in Vietnam are cautious about publicly disseminating their views for fear of retribution, usually in the form of visa denials. Undaunted, party officials closed ranks and reiterated that in Vietnam, the role of the nation’s state-owned media is to protect the party and communicate its wishes to the people.

It bears noting that on June 20 this year, the deputy culture minister Do Quy Doan said that the domestic media is a force to combat “the false ideas and plans of enemy forces and other political opportunists, and to protect the ideas, agenda and fundamental leadership of the party.” It is not to expose malfeasance within the leadership and embarrass it.

The crackdown, coming as it does at the same time as a robust move against the Catholic community and labor activists and indeed any incipient anti-party line voices, reflects a triumph for the conservatives and a severe setback for the reformist movement.

PM Dung has had to accede to the crackdown after enduring conservative criticism of his government’s tolerance of a more open media, as well as his emphasis on fast economic growth despite painfully high inflation that has alienated much of the party’s rural base.

Increasingly viewed as both soft on security and over-eager to bow to foreign demands, Dung is in danger of being eclipsed within the party by the increasingly powerful Truong Tan Sang, a fellow Politburo member from the South who heads the Secretariat, which runs the party on a day to day basis. Sang is leading the crackdown on the media and has pushed successfully for the trials of journalists and other dissidents, citing the need for stability during tough economic times.

He recently noted: “The disposition of these political trials has achieved some degree of success by teaching these people a lesson and thus effectively snuffing out contrarian political activities while they are still in the embryonic stages.”

As his star rises, along with those of other hardliners like Le Hong Anh and Ho Duc Viet, PM Dung’s has begun to be eclipsed. The tough guys who take no prisoners are now in the ascendant. Their rise and the setback for the reformists has already been evident in the internal skirmishes going on over how to deal with the nation’s severe economic downturn and it may yet result in further ructions at the top if that downturn continues.

As one Vietnam specialist said:” Last week’s trial was not about a couple of journalists but about how they, among many other journalists, were ultimately used in factional struggles.”

He continued: “It is hard to say who sided with whom, and whether we can easily mark this group “conservative” or that group “moderate” since these factional struggles seem to be less driven by ideology and more by a mix of power grab and personal economic gain.”

Added Professor Carlyle Thayer, a noted Vietnam expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy: “The legitimacy of Vietnam’s one-party state largely rests on “performance legitimacy,” that is, success in delivering economic growth to society at large.”
Absent that growth, public outrage at draconian measures like last week’s convictions will unquestionably grow and will increasingly threaten the party’s legitimacy.

http://www.asiasentinel.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1500&Itemid=31&limit=1&limitstart=4

Vietnam still oppressive

October 23, 2008 – 9:08AM
The Orange County Register

The imprisonment of journalist Nguyen Viet Chien in Vietnam demonstrates that while it may not be the hard-line communist regime it once was, Vietnam still has a long way to go before it is a semblance of a normal government with even a tiny bit of respect for human rights.

In 2006 Nguyen Viet Chien and another journalist, Nguyen Van Hai, exposed a scandal that involved a unit in the government’s Ministry of Transport that siphoned off funds intended for infrastructure, mostly donated by the World Bank and Japan, to lay big bets on European soccer matches. Nine members of the unit were convicted, and the revelation was deeply embarrassing for the government.

Instead of getting a prize for exposing corruption, however, Chien and Hai were arrested. Hai was let off with a suspended sentence, but Nguyen Viet Chien is to serve two years in prison for “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe on the interests of the state.” One of his sources, Col. Dinh Van Huynh, was given a one-year sentence for “deliberately revealing state secrets.”

In a free country journalists are supposed to infringe on the interests of the state and expose corruption when they find and can document it.
Obviously Vietnam is not exactly a free and democratic country yet.

http://www.vvdailypress.com/opinion/nguyen_9130___article.html/chien_vietnam.html

Hanoi U-Turn: Vietnamese journalists are convicted for exposing alleged corruption

The Vietnamese economy’s Achilles’ heel is the country’s reputation for corruption. A recent court case shows why.

Last week Nguyen Viet Chien of Thanh Nien (“Young People”) newspaper and Nguyen Van Hai of Tuoi Tre (“Youth”) were convicted for “abusing freedom and democracy.” Mr. Chien will serve two years in jail, while Mr. Hai will be subject to “re-education.” Two of their police sources were also convicted for “revealing state secrets”; one will go to jail for a year, the other got a warning.

Their real crime was exposing alleged corruption at the Transportation Ministry in 2006. Officials were said to have diverted millions of dollars from the bureau’s $2 billion budget — some $7 million to bet on European soccer matches alone. The Transportation Minister resigned. At the time, Hanoi’s willingness to allow reporting on the scandal seemed to augur a crackdown on corruption and a loosening of restrictions on the media.

Vietnam ranks 121 out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s latest survey of perceived corruption. The journalists’ convictions will discourage other reporters from investigating and exposing official corruption too vigorously. That’s not good for business.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122470030081059145.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

Former journalist released by the court

15:00′ 15/10/2008 (GMT+7)

VietNamNet Bridge – On Wednesday, a court in Hanoi returned with guilty verdicts for two former police officers and two former journalists. Two of the defendants were released by the court.

Two former high-ranking police officers were charged with deliberately revealing state secrets and two former journalists were tried on charges of abuse of freedom and democracy to violate legal rights and benefits of organizations and individuals.

Four defendants listen to the court’s verdict. (Photo: HT)

General Pham Xuan Quac, 62, received an official warning and Lieutienant Colonel Dinh Van Huynh, 50, was sentenced to one year in prison.

Nguyen Viet Chien, 56, formerly of Thanh Nien newspaper, was sentenced to two years in prison and another former journalist, Nguyen Van Hai, 33, of Tuoi Tre newspaper, was sentenced to a two-year non-custodial reeducation sentence and allowed to walk free.

The prison terms of Chien and Huynh include the time they have already served behind bars since their arrests on May 12.

The case involved the investigation of corruption in early 2006, when General Pham Xuan Quac and Lieutenant Dinh Van Huynh were responsible for investigating Project Management Unit 18 (PMU18).

VietNamNet

VietNamNet – Former journalist released by the court

Vietnamese journalist sentenced to 2 years in jail

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — A Vietnamese court sentenced a journalist to two years in prison on Wednesday, accusing him of writing inaccurate stories about one of the country’s most high-profile corruption cases.

Nguyen Viet Chien, 56, was convicted of “abusing freedom and democracy” at the end of a two-day trial at the Hanoi People’s Court.

Presiding Judge Tran Van Vy said before announcing the verdict that Chien had used fabricated information in his reports and that he “damaged the prestige of some high-ranking officials and caused negative public opinion.”

Fellow reporter Nguyen Van Hai, 33, was sentenced on the charges to two years of “re-education without detention,” under which his employers or local government officials will supervise education intended to make him a better citizen.

The newspaper reporters were arrested in May for writing about a 2005 scandal in which Transportation Ministry officials were accused of gambling with allegedly embezzled funds.

Chien and Hai were accused of publishing false information, including that an executive bribed officials with US$500,000 in an attempt to cover-up the scandal.

The case prompted the transportation minister to resign and led to the arrest of a deputy minister. Charges against the deputy minister were suddenly dropped in March, and the journalists were arrested six weeks later.

Chien maintained he was not guilty because he believed the information he used was genuine.

“All of my information came from police officials investigating the case,” Chien told the court before judges delivered their verdict. “It was hard to avoid mistakes at a time when all newspapers competed to report on a case that attracted huge attention from the public.”

Hai pleaded guilty and was given a lesser sentence for his “active cooperation with investigators and remorse,” Vy said.

Chien displayed no emotion when his sentencing was announced. His relatives cried outside the court house.

Hai burst into tears and hugged his wife in the court room after he was released.

Also standing trial, police Maj. Gen. Pham Xuan Quac and investigator Dinh Van Huynh were charged with “deliberately revealing state secrets,” for giving information to the journalists.

Quac, 62, who has retired, was given a warning, while Huynh was sentenced to one year in prison.

The Associated Press: Vietnamese journalist sentenced to 2 years in jail

Regime implicated in scandal behind attack against Catholics in Hanoi – Asia News

by Thuy Dung

Popular indignation over the affair referred to as PMU18, with government officials and representatives embezzling millions of dollars, has led to the repression of any demonstration, including peaceful ones.

Hanoi (AsiaNews) – The most serious corruption scandal in Vietnamese history could be part of the reason for the regime’s change in attitude toward the peaceful demonstrations by Catholics in Hanoi. The repression, which has sometimes been violent, probably takes its origin – in addition to the economic reasons – from the desire to block any kind of protest. The decision was made after accusations against the regime and the communist party, involved in the affair, arose following the news in the media about the history of Project Management Unit 18, referred to as PMU18. The scandal concerns the embezzlement of millions of dollars from funds destined for the construction of infrastructure, especially roads and bridges, and has involved state officials, including one minister, and a leading party official.

The scandal, which exploded at the beginning of 2006, at first saw imprisonments and resignations, but since last October, everything has gradually changed. The deputy transportation minister, Nguyen Viet Tien, who was in prison, has been exonerated, and the shadows have gradually withdrawn from leading officials, like a brother-in-law of the general secretary for the office of the prime minister. In short, the party has reacted, and now two journalists are on trial (in the photo) – Nguyen Van Hai and Nguyen Viet Chien, accused of “abusing democratic freedoms” – and two high security officials, General Pham Xuan Quac and Colonel Dinh Van Huynh, accused of “revealing state secrets.” The trial is underway, and yesterday the prosecutor asked for sentences of between one and six years. The media protested at first, but has since been silenced.

The affair is also indicative of the freedom of the press that exists in Vietnam. In the beginning, in fact, the newspapers were able to talk about it. It was thus discovered that millions of dollars had ended up above all in bets on European soccer matches, but also in the purchase of luxury automobiles and expenses for mistresses and prostitutes. The list of those involved included 200 employees, but it has gone up significantly. In January, the executive director of PMU18, Bui Tien Dung, was arrested, accused of wagering 1.8 million dollars. In April, it was the turn of the deputy minister, and shortly thereafter minister Dao Dinh Binh submitted his resignation. The case is not closed: some of the journalists were pointing fingers even higher. The two now on trial wrote about 40 “others” who had taken bribes. Even the office of the prime minister was under scrutiny. The name of the deputy chief of police was removed from the list of delegates at the party’s tenth congress. At this, discussion of the PMU18 affair dominated, while indignation was growing in the country, to the point of introducing the fear of “risks” for the regime itself. Even in Nhan Dan, the newspaper of the party, on March 27 a permanent member of the Politburo, Phan Dien, admitted that “government officials have taken and given bribes,” and spoke of “cases that were ignored or silenced.”

But on the same day, the public safety ministry launched investigations of some journalists, accusing them of divulging state secrets and exploiting their democratic freedoms to the harm of the state, of citizens, and of organizations.

In October, Nguyen Viet Tien, after 18 months in prison, was released and tried again. This time, he was found not guilty. In May, he was re-admitted to the party. That same month, the two journalists were arrested. Many others have been summoned and interrogated. Some of them, to demonstrate their loyalty and drive away suspicion, have been careful to support the regime in its attack on Catholics, second-class citizens.

The municipality of Hanoi, meanwhile, has kept the territory that the Church was demanding be returned to it. But they have altered its purpose: before the demonstrations by Catholics, it had been given to a Chinese restaurant and a clothing company, but now it is public park land.
VIETNAM Regime implicated in scandal behind attack against Catholics in Hanoi – Asia News