By: Our Correspondent

viet-journalistimgIn 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

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

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.