Top Vietnamese Journalists Arrested

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Police search the office of Vietnamese journalist Nguyen Van Hai

It is a classic case of shooting the messenger. On May 12, government security officers showed up at two of Vietnam's most popular newspapers. They searched the offices and when they were done they led away two prominent Vietnamese journalists. Both were well known for their coverage of an embezzlement and bribery scandal that brought down a top government minister and put several people behind bars. Now Nguyen Van Hai and Nguyen Viet Chien are in jail themselves, ironically on charges similar to those filed against the officials they investigated: "the abuse of power for personal gain."

The journalists' newspapers quickly denounced the arrests. The daily Thanh Nien (Young People) newspaper charged in an editorial that their reporter, Chien, is the victim of a witch hunt—an unusually confrontational tone for a communist country where the press is controlled by the state. Over the past year, Chien was repeatedly questioned about his sources by police "who twisted his reports," the paper said. "(Chien) was not motivated by any personal motive or interest," the paper said. "His motive was completely pure." The Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper said that after the arrest of its reporter it was besieged by a record number of phone calls and e-mails from outraged readers.

The allegations lodged against the journalists are vague. But the real crime they committed was crossing an ever-shifting line of what the country's media can and cannot report, says Shawn McHale, a professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University who is in Vietnam on a Fulbright-Hays fellowship. Vietnam's economy has been growing rapidly for the last several years as the authoritarian government gradually embraces free-market reforms. Institutions like the press would like to see a similar lifting of controls and have increasingly been pushing the limits of government tolerance.

A key source of friction between the press and the powerful has been Hanoi's drive to root out rampant corruption among government officials. A scandal started brewing in early 2006 with the arrest of Bui Tien Dung, the former director of PMU18, a state road and bridge building division with a $2 billion annual budget that is largely funded by the World Bank and Japan. Dung and others were accused of embezzling millions of dollars, most of which was gambled away on European football matches, and spent on prostitutes and luxury cars, according to government investigators.

Dung's arrest and the sensational details of the case—even the Prime Minister's office was at one point under investigation—provided a field day for newspapers eager to give their readers something more than bland propaganda. Suddenly journalists were camped out at the homes of the accused, asking unauthorized questions and printing stories that they knew would embarrass the bureaucracy.

But while the Vietnamese press has enjoyed greater freedom of late, "The question is, how high up can you go?" says McHale. Apparently, not that high. Displeased with the coverage during the scandal, then-Prime Minister Phan Van Khai in 2006 called for news outlets to be prosecuted for "going too far." And today, many see the hand of a higher power in the recent acquittal of the country's deputy transport minister, the highest-ranking official charged in the Dung investigation, as well as in the arrest of the two reporters who wrote about him.

That's not to say the press is blameless. Several senior journalists have raised questions about the ethics and reporting standards of Vietnam's fledgling media. Veteran journalist Huy Duc condemned the arrest of his colleagues, but also noted in his popular blog that the careers of at least two officials in the Communist Party were damaged because of unfounded allegations raised by the press in their PMU18 coverage. "A lot of information printed in newspapers at the time had been made up," Duc claimed, adding that reporters were used by party sources to destroy their political opponents. Duc blamed journalists for not verifying the accuracy of their information. Says Nguyen Van Phu, managing editor of the English-language Saigon Times: "Many so-called investigative stories were in fact written based on information fed to the reporters on purpose."

The newspapers of the arrested reporters are urging government investigators to go after the police and officials who provided spurious information. That's unlikely to happen. At best, the arrests will encourage reporters to "be more careful to double-check sources and do adequate attribution," says Phu of the Saigon Times. At worst, the incident will discourage media coverage of corruption scandals in the future—which won't help Vietnam's leaders in their anti-graft campaign. McHale calls corruption a "cancer" that threatens to eat away at the country's economic gains. "Billions of dollars of FDI (foreign direct investment) is going to go away" if the problem is not attacked and corrupt officials remain unexposed, McHale says. "There is an interest in having a press that addresses these issues."