Two Crusading Journalists Arrested in Vietnam

In a move that has rocked Vietnam’s media, authorities on Monday arrested two journalists who reported aggressively on the country’s biggest corruption scandal in years. The police major general who led the corruption investigation has also been charged with distributing false information to the media.

The Public Security Ministry said that the two journalists and two former policemen, including Major General Pham Xuan Quac, who led the corruption investigation, were charged this week with "abuse of authority while on duty", in relation to the so-called Project Management Unit 18 corruption case, which overshadowed the Communist Party Congress two years ago.

The arrests appear to have precipitated a major test of the power of the press in Vietnam. The blogosphere is filled with charges that the arrests are unwarranted, and the editors of the two government-owned, Saigon-based newspapers Thanh Nien and Tuoi Tre, have flown to Hanoi to protest the arrests.

Corruption scandal

When it erupted in the runup to the Communist Party Congress in April 2006, the PMU 18 case, named after a unit in the Ministry of Transport, was labeled the most politically damaging scandal in many years. The agency was alleged to have squandered millions of dollars, some of which was aid provided by Japan and the World Bank.

Allegations of bribery and gambling at the unit led to the resignation of the transport minister. His disgraced deputy minister was detained for 18 months and vilified by the media for his alleged corruption and decadent lifestyle. Newspapers claimed he had a string of mistresses and once broke a restaurant owner’s teeth in a fight over young waitresses.

The legendary general, Vo Nguyen Giap, seized the scandal as an opportunity to criticize the Communist Party. calling it a "shield for corrupt officials.”

However, since the end of the Congress, which confirmed a new-look Politburo, the PMU 18 investigation has been at a stalemate. Initially described as the mother of all corruption scandals, it was later downgraded to a gambling case. Last August, eight people were sentenced to up to 13 years in prison – charged with illegal gambling but not embezzlement.

The alleged stolen money shrank at the hands of prosecutors. At one point, Bui Tien Dung, head of PMU 18, was said to have bet US$7 million, much of it from donors’ aid, on European football matches. In the trial, the court cut that to US$750,000. And in March, the prosecutors dropped their case against Nguyen Viet Tien, the former vice transport minister, citing lack of evidence.

‘Abuse of power’

Now, in the latest twist, the two journalists, Nguyen Viet Chien and Nguyen Van Hai, were accused of “abuse of power while on duty" as a result of their reporting activity on the PMU 18 case. It is said they will be in custody for at least four months.

According to the officials, Chien’s main fault was a 2006 article that cited sources saying as many as 40 high-ranking officials had been approached by the PMU 18 suspects with bribe offers. The source in question is now said to be Major General Quac, then leading the investigation. Quac and another senior colonel in the same investigation team were indicted for the same charge.

Adding to the shock among local journalists is the fact that the journalists, Chien and Hai, work for the country’s biggest newspapers, Thanh Nien and Tuoi Tre respectively.

General Quac, meanwhile, was constantly and publicly trumpeted as an anti-corruption “hero” during the two years full of PMU 18-related stories – it was estimated some 1,000 articles had been written about the case.

Media shock

In a country where the media is strictly controlled by the Communist Party, both newspapers in question have mounted an immediate and vigorous, protest against the arrests. They insisted their reports had been honest, contributing to the official anti-corruption battle.

Bui Thanh, deputy editor of Tuoi Tre, wrote “justice seemed to be laughed at and journalists became victims.”

The Thanh Nien newspaper declared, “It's a pity that while the party and government calls for fighting corruption and deeply appreciate the media's role in the fight, two experienced and passionate reporters from two trusted newspapers have been arrested.”

In the increasingly lively Vietnamese blogosphere, fellow reporters and bloggers voiced concern that press freedom, already limited, is being eaten away.

Viewing the arrests as a crude reminder of the state monopoly on information, writer Vo Thi Hao lamented that “when people dare not to speak out, to write, to express their political opinions, it would be a national disaster.”

On another blog, however, the veteran journalist, Huy Duc, offered a sober assessment. To him, the steady stream of sensational stories about the PMU 18 scandal produced errors that hitherto have been uncorrected. In Vietnamese factional politics, many powers were vested outside the judicial system, and officials “used the newspapers as a means to further their own cause”.

However, Duc said “despite the journalists’ mistakes, their arrests could not be justified.”

On their web sites, Thanh Nien and Tuoi Tre said they had been inundated with letters and phone calls from angry citizens protesting against the arrests.

The chief editors of the two Saigon-based newspapers are currently in Hanoi, presumably to communicate with high-ranking politicians. Rumors abound that there is a bigger struggle among various groupings in the party. While the truth is yet unknown, many feel that due to the public outcry following the arrests, the state’s prestige is on the line just as much as the media’s.