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Two Vietnamese newspaper journalists go on trial for exposing state corruption

Two Vietnamese newspaper journalists go on trial for exposing state corruption

Prosecutors on Tuesday sought a jail sentence of up to two and a half years for a Vietnamese journalist on trial for allegedly writing inaccurate stories about one of the country's most high-profile corruption cases, the Associated Press (AP) has reported.

Reporter Nguyen Viet Chien, 56, was charged with "abusing freedom and democracy." Another reporter, Nguyen Van Hai, 33, is facing the same charge. Both journalists are known for their aggressive reporting on corruption for two of Vietnam's most popular newspapers. Prosecutors recommended that Chien be jailed for between two years and two and a half years. They asked Hai be given up to two years' probation, the AP said.

The trial will be a crucial test for press freedom and the struggle against corruption in Vietnam because the two investigative journalists reported on the huge PMU 18 corruption scandal within the transport ministry that tarnished top officials, according to the Paris-based Reporters sans Frontières (RSF). Since the arrests, the authorities have tightened their control on the liberal press and have punished journalists who expressed public support for their colleagues.

"By putting Nguyen Viet Chien and Nguyen Van Hai on trial, the authorities have chosen to revenge themselves on daring journalists who revealed embarrassing cases and brought greater freedom to the Vietnamese press," RSF reacted. "While some corrupt officials have benefited from a certain leniency, journalists are now being put in the dock. It is an insult to justice. The trial is at the epicentre of an earthquake that has destroyed the still fragile basis of a more independent press, wanting to play its role of challenging established authority," the worldwide press freedom organisation said.

Nguyen Van Hai of Tuoi Tre (Youth) and Nguyen Viet Chien of Thanh Nien (The Young) were involved since 2005 in investigating the PMU 18 scandal implicating scores of officials in the transport ministry who were embezzling funds earmarked for development projects to make sporting bets. The vice-minister was arrested initially, but was acquitted.

The Vietnamese police arrested the two journalists at their newspaper offices on May 12, 2008. The arresting officers said the two journalists had published false information about the PMU 18 scandal. Both had their offices and homes searched.

In the aftermath of these arrests, according to RSF, police questioned a large number of journalists including senior staff on the papers. The daily Tuoi Tre, highly regarded for its outspokenness, was the main target of this crackdown. "The paper has lost its combative approach. The readers are beginning to desert Tuoi Tre," said one journalist in Ho Chi Minh-City.

Colleagues who publicly backed the two arrested journalists also came in for punishment. The Information and Communications Ministry on August 1 withdrew press cards from seven journalists, including Tuoi Tre deputy editor, Bui Van Thanh and bureau chief in Hanoi, Duong Duc Da Trang and deputy editor Nguyen Quoc Phong and sub-editor Huynh Kim Sanh, of Thanh Nien.

Nine people have been convicted of betting millions of dollars on European football matches with money allegedly taken from a unit of the Transportation Ministry that managed major road and bridge construction projects, the AP report mentioned. The unit received substantial funding from the World Bank and the Japanese government. The case prompted the minister to resign and led to the arrest of a deputy minister. However, charges against the deputy minister were suddenly dropped in March, and the journalists were arrested six weeks later.

According to Agence France-Presse (AFP), the arrests have sent a chill through the Vietnamese media, which initially protested but, following stern warnings from the authorities, fell silent after two days. Some foreign diplomats and media were allowed to follow the journalists' trial, scheduled to run for two days, via closed-circuit television.

Scores of Vietnamese journalists, AFP reported, stood outside the court -- some carrying flowers for their colleagues on trial, others comforting the reporters' tearful relatives when they emerged during a break. One unauthorised blogger told the journalists "We are always on your side," and the authorities: "You may have their bodies, but not their souls."

Date posted: October 14, 2008 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 384