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Vietnam: Detention of journalists sparks web debate

It would seem like the press in Vietnam is getting freer and freer, but the arrest of two journalists and a once-renowned investigator shows that any recent progress is tenuous.

In the run up to Vietnam’s admission to the World Trade Organization in 2006, newspapers reported with never before seen gusto. In the biggest story since the arrest and execution of mob boss Nam Can, in mid 2006 the Project Management Unit 18 (PMU 18) scandal broke. Newspapers reported on ministry of transportation officials who were accused of embezzlement and bribery and for losing millions of foreign dollars. These reports made the international press and greatly embarrassed the Vietnamese Communist Party.

At the heart of the scandal was senior police officer in charge of investigating the case, Major General Pham Xuan Quac, now retired. He was hailed as a hero for his role in exposing corruption in the ministry of transportation. At one point he gave an interview to Thanh Nien reporter Nguyen Viet Chien, who then wrote of PMU 18 manager Bui Tien Dung’s attempts at bribery. Dung was arrested, along with deputy minister of transport Nguyen Viet Tien, who allocated 70 percent of ministry funds to the corrupt and inefficient PMU 18. The minister of transportation, Dao Dinh Binh, resigned but was not detained.

Newspaper reports reflected public outrage and labelled Dung, Tien and Binh as corrupt villains. Reports mentioned the call for justice, a bold step in a tightly controlled media. In the West it is illegal for the media to declare a person guilty or innocent before he or she is sentenced in court, so perhaps the Vietnamese media did go a step too far.

But this year the pendulum swung back. In early 2008, the PMU 18 officials went to trial, and Nguyen Viet Tien, accused of taking PMU 18 vehicles for personal use and of bribing an official in a land-scam, was cleared of all charges. In April, he was reinstated as a Communist Party member. In May, investigator Pham Xuan Quac and journalists Nguyen Viet Chien and Nguyen Van Hai were arrested and charged with “abuse of power” and for printing false facts in the news in the story relating to Dung bribing a number of important persons.

There is a frenzy of discussion on the internet, with colleagues of Chien and Hai eloquently supporting them, both in print and online. Nguyen Cong Khe, editor of the Thanh Nien newspaper, stands by journalist Chien:

“Phóng viên của tôi không bao giờ bịa đặt, mà làm báo không cho phép chúng tôi bịa đặt. Chúng tôi chống tham nhũng hay chống tiêu cực phải dựa trên cơ sở của sự thật và được cơ quan chức năng chính thức cung cấp.

Ngay như bài “Bùi Tiến Dũng đã khai đưa tiền chạy án cho gần 40 nhân vật quan trọng” đăng trên Thanh Niên có đến hai vị tướng xác nhận, và chúng tôi có băng ghi âm. . . Chúng tôi thông tin là có nguồn tin cung cấp, chứng cứ.”

“My reporter never fabricated anything; we are newspapermen and are never allowed to fabricate. We who are opposed to embezzlement and negativity must stand upon a foundation of truth for our organization to function.

“The day that the article, “Bui Tien Dung said that he bribed nearly 40 important persons” was in Thanh Nien newspaper, we had as many as two pieces of supporting evidence and a signed statement. We are informing you that we have valid news sources and proof.”

Journalist Doan Hiep of Saigon Giai Phong, thinks the charges relation to a single story written by Chien, are overblown and unrealistic:

“Họ bị khởi tố về tội lợi dụng chức vụ quyền hạn trong khi thi hành công vụ nhưng cụ thể là lợi dụng thế nào thì chưa ai biết cả. Nếu theo báo Thanh Niên, sai phạm của anh Nguyễn Việt Chiến ở chỗ đưa tin Bùi Tiến Dũng khai đã đưa tiền chạy án cho gần 40 nhân vật quan trọng, thì không đáng phải xử lý hình sự. Hẳn bên trong đó phải còn điều gì khuất tất.”

“They were detained for abusing power in doing their jobs, but they are actually being used for a purpose that no one can guess. If we look at the Thanh Nien newspaper, the mistake of Nguyen Viet Chien made when relating to the “Bui Tien Dung bribing nearly 40 important persons” story, then it’s not worth handling as a criminal offence. At the heart of this issue there must be something dubious.”

Ly Thong, of Hanoi, believes the current situation is a symptom of a greater struggle within government. Ly writes in a comment to an article in the English language Asia Sentinel on May 20th,

“This is a sign of disunity between the factions wresting for power within the communist party. The powerful conservative faction headed by the pro-Chinese (and pro-Russian) faction Nong Duc Manh want to deal a heavy blow at the more radical faction who want to combat corruption and inch towards the Western democracies…”

Chuong, a Vietnamese-Canadian, eloquently criticizes the Vietnamese government from Ontario,

“Các nhà báo viết về vụ PMU 18 đều bị bắt, cộng thêm thiếu tướng Nguyễn Xuân Quắc cũng cùng chung số phận, tôi càng không biết Việt Nam nằm đâu trên thước đo công lý, công bằng xã hội và tự do dân chủ của người dân…”

“The journalists who wrote about PMU18 have all been arrested, and even investigator Nguyen Xuan Quac faced the same destiny, and I question even more where Vietnam lies on the scales of justice, societal equality and free democracy of the people…”

One journalist, Huy Minh of the Vietnam News Agency, is taking it all in stride,

“Khi ông Nguyễn Việt Tiến còn bị giam giữ, tôi đã đọc một bài báo đăng tải hình ảnh ông Tiến cầm guitare và hát. Hình ảnh đó làm tôi chững lại và suy nghĩ, ông Tiến, trước hết cũng là một con người, với biết bao vui buồn của ông ấy…. Tôi chỉ có một câu hỏi thế này thôi: ‘Tại sao, trong vụ án này, lại có quá nhiều, quá nhiều người buồn đến vậy?. Tôi cũng đang như anh Việt Chiến, “bất lực trong cách giải thích” và cũng chẳng có gì cả, “ngoài những nỗi buồn”.’”

“When Nguyen Viet Tien was detained, I read an article with a picture of him holding a guitar and singing. That picture made stop short and think that Tien, before everything, is still a man, and I knew what sadness he bore… I only want to ask one question, ‘Why, during this episode, we have so many, so many people as upset as this? I will still insert that Viet Chien is “helpless in his explanations” and that it doesn’t mean a thing, “other than being sad”.’”

Minh has got something right, albeit unintentional. In Vietnam, the press is kept on a short leash, but occasionally a brave reporter is able to force change. These reporters knew better than anyone the tenuous ground on which they stood and took a calculated risk. Instead, drawing attention drawn to the fate of whistleblowers both highlights the press’ situation in Vietnam but also promotes fear of reporting the truth.

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