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Cablegate: Gvn Clampdown On Press Claims More Victims

VZCZCXRO4888
RR RUEHCHI RUEHDT RUEHHM RUEHNH
DE RUEHHI #0865/01 2060946
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 240946Z JUL 08
FM AMEMBASSY HANOI
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 8188
INFO RUEHHM/AMCONSUL HO CHI MINH 4947
RUCNASE/ASEAN MEMBER COLLECTIVE

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 HANOI 000865

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: ECON PHUM PGOV KCOR KPAO SOCI PREL VM
SUBJECT: GVN CLAMPDOWN ON PRESS CLAIMS MORE VICTIMS

Ref: A) HANOI 672; B) HANOI 569; C) HANOI 563; D) 07 HCMC 1136; E)
07 HANOI 2088; F) 07 HANOI 1016 G) 2007 HCMC 0965

HANOI 00000865 001.2 OF 002


Summary
-------

1. (SBU) Two popular State-controlled but reformist newspapers based
in Ho Chi Minh City that ran stories on corruption replaced
editorial leaders and the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) recently
interrogated the paper's chief editors. While the dailies portrayed
the moves as nothing out of the ordinary, our media contacts say
they are punishment for reporting on stories such as the Ministry of
Transportation's 2006 Project Management Unit-18 (PMU-18) scandal in
which officials wasted millions of dollars of funds for
infrastructure on gambling, real estate and bribery, and for running
articles that indirectly called for freeing up the political system.
A recent CPV-organized meeting reportedly concluded that
authorities should step up efforts to "ensure political stability
and social order," given public uproar over the PMU-18 case and the
arrests of two reporters who exposed the scandal (Reftels). The MPS
says the arrested reporters admitted to "exaggerating and
fabricating information" in the PMU-18 case. Coming down hard with
the ideological sledgehammer on those who report corruption while
effectively exonerating those who perpetrate it likely will have
counterproductive results over time, deepening public skepticism of
the GVN's and CPV's stated willingness to tackle corruption. End
Summary.

Editors Out, Chief Editors Interrogated
---------------------------------------

2. (SBU) In early July, State-controlled newspapers Youth ("Thanh
Nien") and Young Age ("Tuoi Tre") replaced the managing editor and
deputy chief editor, respectively. (Note: In Vietnam, "chief
editors" have ultimate power over what stories run as well as
day-to-day administrative responsibilities while "managing editors"
oversee story publication with direction from the "chief editors."
"Deputy chief editors" in theory have more authority than "managing
editors," but in practice dividing lines between the two often are
not clear. End Note). These developments follow the May arrests of
Thanh Nien reporter Nguyen Van Chien and Tuoi Tre reporter Nguyen
Van Hai for "abusing power in carrying out their official duties" in
connection to their 2006 reports on the corruption scandal at the
Ministry of Transportation's Project Management Unit-18 (PMU-18)
(Reftels). The two papers portrayed the personnel changes as
nothing out of the ordinary, but our media contacts say they are
punishment for reporting on corruption and for running articles that
indirectly called for political change in the lead-up to the 10th
Party Congress in 2006.

3. (SBU) The former Managing Editor at Thanh Nien remains at the
paper, but in his new position has no say over which stories run.
Thanh Nien contacts privately told us that the former managing
editor, who was involved in running the original PMU-18 stories, now
has a highly paid "do-nothing" position.

4. (SBU) Media contacts say police officials from the Ministry of
Public Security's (MPS) A 24 Investigative Department interrogated
the current Thanh Nien and Tuoi Tre chief editors -- both of whom
are senior Party members -- over the course of the last few days
about coverage of the PMU-18 scandal and the arrest of the
reporters. PM Dung reportedly asked Truong Tan Sang, Politburo
member and Standing Member of the Secretariat of the Communist Party
of Vietnam (CPV) Central Committee, to allow him "to get tough" with
the chief editors.

5. (SBU) HCMC press contacts remind us, however, that Thanh Nien's
chief editor has thus far avoided any personal repercussions for
PMU-18 reporting because of his connections to Politburo members.
This "umbrella" saved him from what sources characterize as a
still-unfolding "crackdown" on the press. For his part, the Thanh
Nien former managing editor is a "scapegoat," they add. These
contacts are not as confident that the Tuoi Tre managing editor will
avoid disciplinary action because he does not enjoy the same "Party
umbrella." Should the Thanh Nien editor be demoted, our contacts
say the paper will seek to make it appear to be a routine personnel
reshuffle.

6. (SBU) Tuoi Tre also recently formally demoted a deputy chief
editor who was de facto removed from his job last fall, once again
in connection with reporting on corruption perpetrated by some of
the GVN's (and CPV's) highest-ranking members. In that episode,
reported Ref G, two senior editors at Tuoi Tre were removed from
their positions (although not formally fired) for reporting on
corruption in the awarding of contracts for printing polymer bank
notes as well as on related issues of nepotism between the governor
of the State Bank of Vietnam (SBV) and the printing firm owned by
his son. In conversations with HCMC CG, the two editors explained
that they were pushing the envelope on press freedom by running
stories that had not been formally banned even after receiving
instructions to let the whole matter drop quietly. Rising stars

HANOI 00000865 002.2 OF 002


within the Communist Youth League with stellar CPV connections and
zero background in journalism replaced the two editors. Other
contacts in Tuoi Tre report that both CPV insiders remain isolated
at Tuoi Tre, with reporters making a point of leaving the company's
cafeteria when the two enter.

7. (SBU) Tuoi Tre's chief editor used the case of the two sidelined
editors as a jumping off point for a spirited presentation he gave
to the National Assembly late last fall calling for
professionalizing Vietnam's media. In a recent interview for a
local publication, one of the two Tuoi Tre editors who were
sidelined made his displeasure over his recent formal demotion
known. In oblique criticisms of the censors and the GVN's overall
policy of maintaining strict control over all newspapers, he said he
will leave the paper in 2010 to become a professional reporter who
is "not dependent on anyone." He added that "the challenges"
reporters face mean the Vietnamese public over the coming months
will find out who the "real reporters" are as well as which
newspapers are worth reading.

The Still Unfolding PMU-18 Drama
--------------------------------

8. (SBU) In other PMU-18 related developments, the Party's
Information and Education Committee, People's Supreme Procuracy (the
Central Government's prosecution authority), and Vietnam
Journalist's Association convened a meeting on July 3 to discuss the
cases of the two arrested reporters and their alleged MPS sources.
Meeting participants also discussed international reaction to the
arrests and, according to local press accounts, concluded that local
reporting on the PMU-18 scandal had a "negative impact on public
opinion." According to official (GVN-controlled) press accounts,
participants reportedly urged Party authorities to work to "ensure
political stability and social order."

9. (SBU) Media contacts say the MPS also interrogated nearly 40
other reporters and government personnel about what they know on the
case. (Note: after Tuoi Tre and Thanh Nien ran the original stories
on PMU-18, a number of other media outlets ran their own exposes on
the scandal. End Note). The MPS concluded that reporters
"exaggerated or fabricated" information in stories on the lifestyle
and alleged plots of former Deputy Minister of Transportation and
PMU-18 supervisor Nguyen Viet Tien, these contacts add. Our Party
contacts add that Tien will soon be appointed vice head of the
Government Commission on Enterprise Reform and Development. Tien
was released in October and his membership in the CPV restored after
the People's Supreme Court dropped the investigation on his
involvement in the scandal.

Comment: Coming Down With the Ideological Sledgehammer
--------------------------------------------- ---------

10. (SBU) Given simmering resentment over the arrests of the
reporters and frustration with GVN failings on corruption in
general, coming down with the ideological sledgehammer -- by urging
reporters to follow Party lines to ensure "social stability" -- will
likely be counterproductive in the long run. On the one hand, it is
likely to deepen public skepticism of the GVN's and CPV's
willingness to tackle corruption. On the other hand, it is likely
to embolden would-be corrupt officials who will interpret this
episode and others as a signal that top-level CPV officials and
their allies are exempt from the GVN's much-vaunted anti-corruption
campaign.

11. (SBU) Comment Continued: This case also seems to reflect
continuing leadership maneuvering. Many say General Secretary Nong
Duc Manh, whose son-in-law was implicated in the scandal, ordered
the arrests and is protecting Tien. By "getting tough" with the
editors, Prime Minister Dung may be demonstrating his loyalty to
Manh and the collective leadership. As he has the most to gain from
Manh's discomfort, this may be a particularly shrewd move on Dung's
part.

12. (U) This cable was coordinated with ConGen Ho Chi Minh City.

MICHALAK

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