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In Vietnam, Press Freedom Curtailed


From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.



And I'm Melissa Block. In Vietnam, press freedom is a bit of a misnomer. The media are tightly controlled by the Communist Party, but sometimes those controls are eased if reformers are running the government. When conservatives are on the rise, life gets harder for journalists. And that's the situation right now. NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from Hanoi on one journalist's troubles.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Fung Tivic Nop(ph) tells her 5-year-old son his daddy is away on business, but the explanation is wearing a little thin five months on. In reality, the boy's father sits in a prison cell in Kimzung(ph) Street. The government says he's there because of bad reporting on a major corruption scandal he helped expose two years ago. But mostly he's in jail because he refuses to apologize for doing his job. His son, of course, doesn't know that.

Ms. FUNG TIVIC NOP: He often said, why he's - has gone for business for so long time? What happened to him? You know.

SULLIVAN: He's just a 5-year-old.

Ms. NOP: Yeah, 5 years old.


SULLIVAN: What about the 11-year-old?

Ms. NOP: She's often read newspaper and Internet. So, she's - can understand, and she's proud of him because my husband didn't do any wrong.

SULLIVAN: At his very public trial last month, reporter Winvia Chien(ph) could have made things easier for himself by admitting he had done something wrong. It worked for the other reporter charged on the case who apologized and was released after three months in detention. But Chien told the court he had nothing to apologize for. And it's that defiance, more than anything, that won him a two-year sentence. Chien's oldest son, Twan(ph) is 27 and a journalist like his father.

Mr. TWAN CHIEN (Vietnamese Journalist): (Through Translator) My dad used to talk to me all the time about how much he liked writing about corruption, about telling the truth about corruption in our society. And he was not willing to compromise the truth in exchange for his freedom.

SULLIVAN: Especially since some of his sources were high-ranking police officials, and he had the tapes to prove it. But the court, his son says, wasn't interested. Before inflation began biting hard a few months back, the cancer of corruption was the thing Vietnamese complained about the most. And some in power in government had decided to give journalists like Chien more rope to expose corruption at all levels of society. The PMU18 scandal Chien and his colleague helped exposed two years ago was a whopper. It involved officials in a major state transport unit who spent millions of dollars in state funds betting on European soccer matches.

The transport minister resigned, his deputy was arrested, and eight other officials were sent to jail. But the political winds shifted abruptly and dramatically a few months ago. Journalists Winvia Chien and Winvon Hei(ph) were arrested for abuse of power and infringing on the interests of the state. A half-dozen other prominent journalists had their press cards pulled. That, coupled with a stiff sentence for Chien, has had the desired effect. Journalists here are now lying low, careful not to write anything that could get them in trouble.

(Soundbite of man talking)

SULLIVAN: Even the editors of one of the Communist Party's chief propaganda organs aren't immune. Dong Nap(ph) was deputy editor in chief of Di Dong Ket(ph). But he and the editor in chief were both fired a little more than a week ago, he says, for publishing articles deemed critical of the party and the state. Ironically, the paper he writes for is one of the few forums where party members and intellectuals can or could debate issues openly. Even that avenue of expression now seems to be cut off or, at least, severely curtailed for now.

Though the journalists' fate and the government's response to the recent floods here have been widely criticized in the blogosphere, which the government finds much more difficult to control, foreign governments and human rights organizations have criticized the recent crackdown with little effect. Winvia Chien's colleagues, meanwhile, pool their money to help his family get by while he's in jail. And his wife, who used to marvel at how rapidly her city and her country were changing, is now filled with despair.

Ms. NOP: Every day, when I take my daughter to school and I feel very excited about the changes of every street. But after my husband was being in to the prison, in the same street, I often feel very heavy. I can't feel any exciting in our life. So I'm very depressed, I cannot stand to live a lot when my husband can't have freedom.

SULLIVAN: She's still hoping he'll be released early for good behavior, maybe before the Lunar New Year, Tet, in January. And Chien's 11-year-old daughter? She wanted to be a journalist just like her father, but that was before he went to prison. Now, she has decided it's safer to be a doctor. Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Hanoi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.