Vietnam: Behind the Journalists' Jailings

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.