The trial will be a crucial test for press freedom and the struggle against corruption in Vietnam because the two investigative journalists reported on the huge PMU 18 corruption scandal within the transport ministry that tarnished top officials.

Since the arrests, the authorities have tightened their control on the liberal press and have punished journalists who expressed public support for their colleagues.

"By putting Nguyen Viet Chien and Nguyen Van Hai on trial, the authorities have chosen to revenge themselves on daring journalists who revealed embarrassing cases and brought greater freedom to the Vietnamese press.

"While some corrupt officials have benefited from a certain leniency, journalists are now being put in the dock. It is an insult to justice. The trial is at the epicentre of an earthquake that has destroyed the still fragile basis of a more independent press, wanting to play its role of challenging established authority," the worldwide press freedom organisation said.

Reporters Without Borders has obtained testimony from journalists, diplomats and press freedom activists who fear the trial will have a very damaging effect on the freedom of the press but also on the country’s good governance.

Initially accused of misuse of power in their work, the two journalists are now facing seven years in jail for "misuse of democratic rights to harm the interests of the state, organisations and citizens."

Lawyer for one of the journalists criticised the switch in the charges which was made without any explanation. The trial is set to open on 14 October before a people’s court in Hanoi.

On trial alongside them will be two police officers, including Gen. Pham Xuan Quac, accused of providing them with information. They are accused of having "deliberately revealed state secrets".

"What is at stake in the court is more important than the trial of two innocent journalists, it is a public trial that is aimed at frightening the entire profession", said one colleague of the two journalists, who asked for anonymity, as did most of those questioned.

"We are watching this trial very closely because it is a test for the country" one European diplomat said. "No-body dares to talk about this famous corruption case any more in the Vietnamese press (...) This trial is not just of two individuals but of the whole profession", said Bui Tin, a veteran of the official press now living in France.

"There are a lot of comments being posted on discussion forums, but there is also a lot of fear. Everyone knows that this case is a step backwards" said one Vietnamese journalist.

Nguyen Van Hai of Tuoi Tre (Youth) and Nguyen Viet Chien, aged 56, of Thanh Nien (The Young) were involved since 2005 in investigating the PMU 18 scandal implicating scores of officials in the transport ministry who were embezzling funds earmarked for development projects to make sporting bets. The vice minister was arrested initially, but was acquitted.

Police arrested the two journalists at their newspaper offices on 12 May 2008. The arresting officers said the two journalists had published false information about the PMU 18 scandal. Both had their offices and homes searched.

In the aftermath of these arrests, police questioned a large number of journalists including senior staff on the papers. The daily Tuoi Tre, highly regarded for its outspokenness, was the main target of this crackdown. "The paper has lost its combative approach. The readers are beginning to desert Tuoi Tre", said one journalist in Ho Chi Minh-City.

Colleagues who publicly backed the two arrested journalists also came in for punishment. The Information and Communications Ministry on 1st August withdrew press cards from seven journalists, including Tuoi Tre, deputy editor, Bui Van Thanh and bureau chief in Hanoi, Duong Duc Da Trang and deputy editor Nguyen Quoc Phong and sub-editor Huynh Kim Sanh, on Thanh Nien.

The highly respected Bui Van Thanh said: "Justice has been scorned. Journalists have become the victims in this case."

Shortly before this, there was a reshuffle of top editorial posts on the website VietnamNet that was seen by several observers as a clean-up by the information ministry. The replacement for editor Nguyen Anh Tuan, a journalist who was trained in the United States, will be tasked with gagging the website often seen as an open media.

These sanctions have caused alarm among the leaders of Vietnam’s journalists’ organisations. The day after the arrests, the chairman of the Vietnamese Journalists’ Association said, "The press plays a crucial part in the struggle against corruption. It is the role of journalists to seek out information. Now that the case is clearly out in the public domain, it is not the time to look at the responsibility of journalists." For her part, the chairwoman of the Ho Chi Minh-City Journalists’ Association said she was shocked and saddened by the arrest of her colleagues, adding, "I think these journalists have been very courageous investigating the PMU 18 scandal". This case has also prompted a strong public outcry. The day of their arrest we had two thousand comments on an article about it.

Since May, foreign observers have noticed a toning down of editorial lines. "After three days of open criticism in this case, the press went quiet. And we are now seeing a progressive loss of editorial independence. Even on the economy, the newspaper are full of editorials on the theme, "All is well". On politics, the tougher line is even more obvious," said one foreign correspondent posted in Hanoi.

The authorities’ hounding of Tuoi Tre and Thanh Nien is also seen as a blow against the fight against corruption. Veteran journalist Thai Duy said, "We all agree that the fight against corruption in our country is a matter of life or death."

"Should these two journalists be arrested, while no-one has really got any results in this struggle? The press is the most effective instrument in this fight. If the press is reined in, what will become of it?"

One diplomat in Hanoi said, "The two reporters worked on reports on embezzlement of money intended for development. How can the government then proceed in its fight against corruption? That is what we said during a meeting on the fight against corruption in Hanoi in June. But we have not so far had any reaction."

The trial has also attracted hostile statements towards the media from the highest authorities. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said that he was opposed to private individuals having press rights. "A large number of young journalists reacted to this statement with disappointment and bitterness, seeing it as a bucket of cold water thrown on their hopes, when they had come to believe in a revival in the profession", said Bui Tin. He said that the crackdown had been ordered by the political bureau of the Vietnamese Communist Party.

Recommendations:

1. To the Vietnamese government: Drop the charges against Nguyen Viet Chien and Nguyen Van Hai and release them immediately. Cancel the sanctions taken against the journalist who publicly supported them.

2. To the World Bank: Make the granting of new loans conditional on the release of the two journalists and the end of media control.

3. To democratic governments, particularly the European Union: Make financial backing for Vietnam conditional on the outcome of this case and also on reduced control of the media.

Reporters Without Borders - October 10, 2008