In Vietnam, Press Freedom Stifled

Press freedom in Communist Vietnam is limited, to say the least.

But the country's recent ascension to the World Trade Organization and its hosting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit a few years ago had some wondering if liberalization would also extend to journalism, where some journalists were already pushing the limits.

Two years ago, reformists in the Vietnamese government gave journalists from two prominent newspapers a green light to go after high-level corruption in the transport ministry.

What became known as the PMU 18 scandal involved millions in public funds that were used to bet on European soccer matches. The scandal led to the arrest of a number of high-ranking government officials, including the deputy minister of transport. His boss was forced to resign.

And the Vietnamese people began to think there was something to this anti-corruption drive. But that was then.

Just two months ago, the two journalists who wrote the stories for the influential Tuoi Tre and Thanh Nien newspapers were sent to jail after being accused of inaccurate reporting and abuse of power.

Their lawyers are unable to see them. Their families won't talk. And just last week, Vietnam's conservatives struck again in this broadside delivered on state-run television.

Five prominent journalists had their press cards pulled, including the deputy editor of the reformist Tuoi Tre newspaper, which helped break the PMU 18 story.

He has now been reassigned to the sales department.

Do Quy Doan, the government's deputy minister of information and communication, says there was no political motive in the decision to arrest and demote the journalists involved in the PMU 18 affair.

The papers, he says, simply had their facts wrong.

"The most important thing for any journalist in the world is to ensure the truth and accuracy without any fabrication or exaggeration," Do Quy Doan said. "The two journalists are being investigated not because of their articles on corruption on PMU 18, but because they exaggerated. They distorted the truth."

Never mind the facts seemed solid enough to convict the deputy minister and force the minister's resignation.

Many observers now believe the recent arrests and disciplinary action against dozens more journalists will lead them to become more cautious — and more self-censoring in the future.

"All across the board, I think the heads will be pulled in and there will be a chilling effect across the board in Vietnam," says Carl Thayer, a Vietnam watcher at the Australian Defense Force Academy. "And part of that chilling effect is occurring because of backlashes [from] the Tuoi Tre reports that we were just talking about. And journalists — their punishment attracted a good deal of sympathy from intellectuals and the elite in Vietnam. And I think that was distributing to the conservatives. And they want to scotch this very, very quickly."

But why now? Thayer has a theory about that, too.

It involves Vietnam's skyrocketing inflation, growing social unrest, and a feeling that the government is unable to get a handle on its economic woes. This makes conservatives nervous and wary of those who rock the boat, like journalists.

Another reason Thayer believes the conservatives are in the ascendancy is because the reformists' long-term champion, former Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet, died earlier this summer.

"His death came at the time when the journalists' professions, particularly in Tuoi Tre and Thanh Nien, news journalists were under threats by the government for pushing, for opening on the current corruption case," he says. "And his death means that those kinds of journalists and people pushing for change no longer have a senior protector in Vietnam."

Score this round for the conservatives. And the deputy transport minister convicted in the PMU 18 case? He's out of jail — and back in favor.

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