Graft-busting reporter jailed for two years

New York, October 15, 2008–Nguyen Viet Chien, a reporter for the Vietnamese daily newspaper Thanh Nien who broke major stories on high-level government corruption in 2006, was sentenced today to two years in prison after being found guilty of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state,” according to news reports.

Nguyen Van Hai, a reporter with the daily Tuoi Tre, pleaded guilty to the same charge and received a non-custodial, two-year re-education sentence. The Hanoi People’s Court also convicted two police officers who had provided information to the press related to the graft scandal. Lt. Col. Dinh Van Huynh was given a one-year sentence for “deliberately revealing state secrets.” Pham Xuan Quac, a now retired general who headed the government’s corruption inquiry, was given an official reprimand.

In announcing the verdict, the court said that “hostile forces, reactionaries and political opportunists” had used the scandal to attack the state and party leadership while “stirring up activities to disturb security and order” before a pivotal Communist Party meeting, according to Agence France-Presse. Hai received a lesser sentence than Chien because he did not contest the charge.

Diplomats and journalists were allowed to monitor the two-day trial through closed-circuit television outside of the courtroom, AFP reported.

“The sentences handed down today to journalists Nguyen Viet Chien and Nguyen Van Hai are shameful,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “By uncovering a major government corruption scandal, these journalists have performed a public service. The court’s decision is unfair and vindictive.”

The two reporters were leaders in breaking news about the so-called Project Management Unit-18 scandal, in which senior Transport Ministry officials were found to have embezzled more than 12 million Vietnamese Dong (US$750,000) in state funds to wager on international soccer matches among other misuses.

Transport Minister Dao Dinh Binh resigned in April 2006 and several other officials, including Deputy Transport Minister Nguyen Viet Tien, were jailed in April 2006 on related corruption charges. Tien was released in October 2007, and on March 2008 had all his legal rights and benefits reinstated. Reporters Chien and Hai were arrested in May this year for “abusing their position and power” and were held in detention as police conducted investigations into their work. 

The arrests sparked rare media criticism of the government, including critical front-page stories in Thanh Nien and Tuoi Tre. The deputy editors of both papers were subsequently removed by the government from their positions after they continued to cover the controversy and at least five other journalists who had reported on Chian and Hai’s legal defense had their press credentials revoked in early August on the order of Deputy Minister of Information and Communications Do Quy Doan.