The case gripped the nation and sparked a debate about the role of the media in the communist country.

Land protests are not unusual in Vietnam, a country where the state gives farmers the right to use land but keeps control of it. Many local authorities have taken advantage of a lack of transparency and accountability in the law to give farmers low compensation when taking their land for development projects.

Anecdotes abound of protesting farmers lying in the path of bulldozers, but few make it into the local news. Vuon went that little bit further. Not long after the January 5 gun battle started, images of the fray flooded internet news sites. It didn't take long before reports were questioning the reasons for the eviction given by the district people's committee.

The case sparked nationwide sympathy for Vuon, described by many as a hardworking man who was a model farmer for the community. Shortly afterwards, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said he would head an investigation into the incident.

Retired US diplomat David Brown, also a former employee of the online news site Vietnamnet, said he had never seen such extensive coverage of such an incident in the country.

'This could be the first time I have seen the vernacular press do as well as the blogs in covering the story,' he said. 'They were all over the story.'

About 800 stories were published in the local press on Vuon in the space of a month, according to the government. Several news outlets held online dialogues with top officials and members of the public on the subject, including giaoduc.net, which held a forum with former president Le Duc Anh, a supporter of the fish farmer.

The unbridled coverage is unusual in Vietnam, a country rated 172nd out of 179 countries in Reporters Without Borders' Press Freedom Index 2011-2012.

Editors of news publications are known to meet once a week with government officials to be given 'guidance' on what they can and can't write about. Journalists can lose their jobs or even face time in jail if they fail to comply.

Brown said he thinks the media were not banned from covering the story. 'In fact, they probably, although I can't prove it, got encouragement to get down there and dig up the facts,' he said.

When the findings of the investigation were announced at a press conference last week, the prime minister declared the decision to evict Vuon illegal and called for authorities who ordered the eviction to be punished. He also asked the court to be lenient when dealing with Vuon's case.

In a move that surprised some, Dung went on to praise the media for 'effectively helping competent agencies to clarify the case.' He also urged the Ministry of Information and Communications to strengthen the press.

The comment was picked up by British Ambassador Antony Stokes, who welcomed the move by the prime minister.

'Could the reviews which the prime minister announced last Friday also be a valuable opportunity to explore mechanisms to manage and regulate the media, ensuring their impartiality, free from direct government control or political interference?' he asked.

Brown said the prime minister commended the press because his government wants the public to know it recognizes the depth of the issues raised by Vuon's case. The state is saying that they understand the problems and are 'not just going to clean house and make farmer Vuon whole again,' but also want to say it understands that the law needs to be thoroughly revisited and fixed, the former diplomat said.

Despite the fact several officials in the Tien Lang district have been suspended, not everyone is persuaded that the prime minister's words would be put into action. Anti-corruption activist Le Hien Duc, former member of staff for the country's first president Ho Chi Minh, is among them.

'I think the prime minister's recommendations are not enough,' she said. 'What Prime Minister Dung says seems good if you listen to him, but I am waiting for the real action. Speaking is different from doing.'

By Marianne Brown & Pham Bac - Deutsche Presse Agentur - February 16, 2012