Reporters, police prosecuted for giving “false information” in PMU-18 corruption case

HANOI, May 13 (Reuters) – Police arrested two Vietnamese journalists who wrote stories of bribery, corruption and gambling in a Transport Ministry scandal in 2006, their newspapers reported on Tuesday.

The report said the journalists from Tuoi Tre (Youth) and Thanh Nien (Young People) were indicted on Monday for “abuse of power} by spreading “false information” on the scandal that led to the resignation of the transport minister.

A senior police officer, who was an apparent source for the reporters, was also indicted on Monday with “abuse of power”, an online newspaper quoted a police ministry spokesman as saying.

A transport ministry agency that builds roads and bridges with foreign aid has been investigated since 2005 after officials were accused of embezzling state money and using it for lavish lifestyles and betting on European soccer.

The media was encouraged to report on corruption as the government publicly stepped up its campaign to root out graft, which is cited as hampering investment and development.

The arrested reporters Nguyen Van Hai, 33, of Tuoi Tre and Nguyen Viet Chien, 56, of Thanh Nien, were among the most prolific on the story of corruption within the agency known as PMU 18.

“I hold that the prosecution and detention of the two journalists of Thanh Nien and Tuoi Tre at this time is not normal,” Nguyen Quoc Phong, deputy editor-in-chief of Thanh Nien daily was quoted as saying in Tuoi Tre.

Back in 2006, the transport minister resigned to take responsibility for the scandal. In April, prosecutors exempted his deputy from criminal responsibility.

The former head of the big-budget agency, Project Management Unit 18, was sentenced to 13 years in jail last year for illegal gambling and attempts to cover it up with bribes. Eight other officials, including former police officers and businessmen, have been jailed for their part in the scandal.

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Vietnam arrests journalists that reported on corruption, Reuters, May 13, 2008

Journalists, police prosecuted for giving “false information” in PMU-18 corruption case, Vietnam News, May 14, 2008 Legal proceedings were commenced Monday, May 12 against two former police officers and two journalists on criminal charges related to the Project Management Unit (PMU) 18 case, a spokesman of the Ministry of Public Security announced.

Unanswered questions in reporters’ arrest, Thanh Nien, May 13, 2008. The reporters were arrested for “abusing their position and power while discharging public duty.” Some 1,000 articles have been written about PMU18 and carried in 100 publications. Some of these articles contained inaccurate information. These include an incorrect story published in the Ministry of Public Security’s newspaper. Last year and at the beginning of this year, scores of reporters, were summoned by the investigators. But only two have been prosecuted. Unfortunately, they work for the two newspapers that lead the crusade against corruption and negativism. If the media made mistakes in reporting the case, the Ministry of Public Security must first explain how some officials from the ministry and police, the investigators and other agencies did not once contact the media throughout the whole two years to refute any “inaccurate” information. It’s a pity that while the party and government call 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.

Vietnam media decry reporters’ arrests, AP, Mar 13, 2008. Tuoi Tre published a story Wednesday saying it was inundated by phone calls, e-mails and letters from angry citizens protesting the government’s move — the most it had received in 33 years of publication.

Two Vietnam reporters arrested over graft scandal coverage: reports, AFP, 13 May 2008. Hai and Chien played a key role in 2006 in the so-called “PMU 18” scandal which involved a department of the Transport Ministry in charge of building key infrastructure projects such as roads and bridges. During their investigation, police suspected the money embezzled from the department, which is funded largely by Japan and the World Bank, was to be wagered on international football matches. The Tuoi Tre said its reporter “is paying the price for his news on the PMU-18 affair, a matter which is not yet over but which unravels in a very strange manner.”

Vietnam arrests two journalists for alleged false reports on soccer gambling scandal, International Herald Tribune, May 13, 2008. Police, government officials and newspaper executives were unavailable for comment Tuesday, but both newspapers printed articles saying their reporters had done nothing wrong. “These arrests really stunned the journalism community,” wrote Bui Thanh, deputy editor of Tuoi Tre. “They are saddened and indignant.” Thanh Nien quoted Chien as saying just before his arrest: “My only crime was to actively fight against corruption. I will fight to the end to defend the righteousness of my cause.”

Vietnamese journalists outraged by arrests of reporters who covered corruption scandal, International Herald Tribune, May 14, 2008. The reporters are accused of “abuse of authority” for allegedly inaccurate reporting on a major corruption scandal that led to the resignation of the transportation minister in 2006. Tuoi Tre published a story Wednesday saying it was inundated by phone calls, e-mails and letters from angry citizens protesting the government’s move — the most it had received in 33 years of publication.

The People’s Trust, Thanh NIen, May 14, 2008. Viet Chien and Van Hai knew well the dangers of being journalists. But they might not have expected the danger to come from the other side of the law. After a long fight against corruption, the two reporters, from Thanh Nien and Tuoi Tre respectively, were arrested on Monday. As the two arrested knew clearly, journalists can face dangers in both war and peacetime. Nguyen Viet Chien, Nguyen Van Hai, Thanh Nien and Tuoi Tre had already put themselves in harm’s way as they led the press’ fight against corruption in the pursuit of fairness and justice. The reporters and their papers had long since gotten used to threats from criminals and fugitives of the law, but meeting opposition from law enforcement agencies came as a surprise to many.

Free the honest journalists, Thanh NIen, May 14, 2008. Thanh Nien’s offices were swamped yesterday by waves of telephone calls, emails and letters calling for arrested Thanh Nien journalist Nguyen Viet Chien to be released as soon as possible. Many National Assembly members, state officials, scholars and people from all walks of life have called Chien’s arrest unjust and harmful to the common good. Click the link for excerpts from opinions voiced with Thanh Nien. “It’s such an unfortunate incident, happening right at a time when our government has vowed to battle corruption even harder.”

Top Vietnamese Journalists Arrested, Time-CNN, May 16, 2008. 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 involving construction using official development assistance funds (foreign aid).

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