For nearly two decades, Hung worked the police beat in several Mekong Delta provinces just south of Ho Chi Minh City. First as a stringer for Tuoi Tre (Youth), then as a salaried reporter for Phap Luat HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City Justice) and, since 2002, and most recently for Nguoi Lao Dong (The Worker), Hung covered family

squabbles, neighborhood disputes, suspicious deaths and disappearances, arrests of gamblers, smugglers and dope dealers, and complaints about police brutality and wayward officials.

Sometimes Hung's stories stung people in power. For example, one of his reports last year revealed that 111 officials in Long An province had used forged high school diplomas to win promotions. Occasionally, he would uncover something sensitive, instances of corruption that touched the reputations of senior officials and Communist party cadre.

The big money in rapidly urbanizing Long An province, which abuts the sprawling Ho Chi Minh City metropolis on its south and west, is in "land classification", or re-zoning. Hung penned dozens of articles for Nguoi Lao Dong on the conversion of agricultural land into "development zones", such as golf courses, industrial estates, upscale tract homes, and often shined light on dubious official behavior.

In the spring and summer of 2010, his byline appeared on a series of articles on the misappropriation of several hundred hectares of public land by officials in the province's Tan Hung district.

The reporter was professionally respected but not distinguished, and by no means exceptional in his journalistic zeal to uncover scandal. Though said by his editor to be incorruptible, Hung was hardly a radical; he was a Communist Party member, a former non-commissioned officer in the Vietnamese Army, and the son of a Vietcong soldier.

Reportage like Hung's has become standard fare in Vietnam's leading newspapers. Stories that speak truth to power help to build circulation, as several dozens of Vietnam's print and digital newspapers have learned in the years since the nation adopted a free market economic model. Moreover, as long as they speak truth only to local power, holding officials accountable serves the interests of the central government and party machinery.

Though the Vietnamese press is usually portrayed by foreign observers as subservient to and heavily controlled by the party apparatus, the actual situation is far more nuanced. Reporters and editors have learned which subjects or situations they can cover boldly, which conflicts may only be hinted at, and which are forbidden.

They may be commended if their stories show where local officials have failed to implement central policies correctly or, indeed, have deliberately ignored or distorted instructions from the top. Editors are often disciplined, however, if they run stories that suggest that central policies themselves are fatally flawed, or that a taint of scandal attaches to higher-ups.

University of Iowa professor Mark Sidel points out that reporting on legal issues, including some violations of law by police and other authorities, has been encouraged by the party and government seeking to legitimize the strengthening of legal frameworks. "In effect," Sidel says, "Vietnam's print media has been granted greater autonomy to report - sometimes in controversial or lurid detail - on a wide variety of social, legal and other topics."

Torching the messenger In the early hours of January 19, someone apparently entered Hung's home through an open window, doused the sleeping journalist with gasoline, and set him afire. His screams roused his wife, Tran Thi Thuy Lieu, and two daughters who were asleep on the floor above. By the time the flames were extinguished, Hung had suffered third-degree burns on much of his body. The reporter died in Saigon's Cho Ray Hospital 10 days later.

Hung's assailants are still unknown. The police are investigating and say they have targeted some suspects. Both media and official comment has been circumspect about who may be responsible for Hung's torching. Even the calls for the speedy apprehension of his assailants by Nguoi Lao Dong and other Vietnamese newspapers have been quite low key, as if they suspect the crime may not have been related to Hung's reporting.

Hung's death nearly coincided with the entry into force of amendments to the Vietnamese Press Law that have been touted by Hanoi as better securing reporters' rights. They impose substantially greater penalties on anyone who interferes with or harms a journalist while he is covering a story. Officials, according to the new Press Ordinance, are required "to cooperate with the media".

The same ordinance has been roundly criticized by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), both press freedom watchdogs. The international organizations have objected to increased sanctions on publishing "non-authorized" information or information "not in the interests of the people", and a requirement that reporters must identify their sources. RSF and CPJ have additionally condemned the attack on Hung, speculating that it may have had something to do with his reportage.

Though the provisions of edicts like the new Press Ordinance normally are enforced selectively, however prescriptive their language, it's fair to say that Vietnam's 17,000 licensed journalists are paying attention and wondering if the new ordinance really signals a tighter rein on the media.

In an address on January 5, senior politburo member Truong Tan Sang suggested that bringing papers to heel may indeed be the regime's intention. Sang criticized the commercialism, shortage of sensitivity and social responsibility and persistent "focus on the adverse side of society, which harms businesses, producers and consumers" of some newspapers. In the event, the attack on Hung poses a test of the regime's intentions.

On February 5 came an unexpected twist. Returning to print after a three day Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday, national newspapers reported that Hung's wife, Tran Thi Thuy Lieu, has been intensively questioned by the Long An provincial police. Nguoi Lao Dong and Tuoi Tre both quote unnamed "sources" as saying that Lieu is an inveterate gambler who was in the habit of wagering large sums at a casino just across the nearby Cambodian border.

She had lost so much money on wagers that, according to Nguoi Lao Dong's source, she had implored her husband to sell their house to repay her debts. Thanh Nien on February 7 added more detail: Lieu had run up a tab of 1.5 billion dong (US$75,000), Hung had told friends that he and his wife had "differences", and over 20 people, including gambling buddies and Lieu's brother in law, have already been questioned. Lieu, meanwhile, is said to maintain that she visited the casinos only on business to sell cold towels.

The police investigating the crime knew Hung well. They were his subjects and his sources for decades. It's possible that these same police have generated a conspiracy theory to obscure official complicity in the attack. That's not unknown in Vietnam - or elsewhere. So far, there's been no suggestion that Hung ratted on his wife as he lay dying. Whether it's a chilling tale of press repression or simply a sordid domestic scandal, the circumstances of his death are the sort of story Hung would have likely pursued with vigor.

By David Brown - Asia Times - February 11, 2011