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Cablegate: Vietnam's Media Crackdown: No End in Sight

DE RUEHHM #0735/01 2271008
R 141008Z AUG 08




E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: (A) HANOI 672 (B) HCMC 700 (C) HANOI 865 AND PREVIOUS (D) 2007 HCMC 1136

HO CHI MIN 00000735 001.2 OF 003

1. (SBU) Summary: Four more chief editors of popular newspapers
in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are expected to soon join the
ranks of nine other press brethren who have been removed from
their positions as a result of their reporting on corruption.
Reliable Mission media contacts also lament that the end is
nowhere in sight. Arrests could broaden as well since three of
the senior editors whose press cards have already been revoked
expect to be called in as co-defendants at the
as-yet-unscheduled trial of the two Hanoi-based reporters who
broke the news on the 2006 PMU 18 corruption scandal (Ref A).
The heat appears to be coming directly from the Politburo, where
rumors say that once opposing factions have now united and
unanimously agreed that it is time to reign in the media for
pushing the envelope on corruption reporting and public
criticism of the government. The press firings appear to be
part of a larger campaign to tighten the newspapers' fiscal
freedom and outreach efforts. Journalists, though scared, are
expressing their deep frustration in publicly available web logs
(blogs). End Summary.

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2. (SBU) ConGen's HCMC media contacts said they expect the
current purge of top media brass to continue in coming days,
while journalist contacts in Hanoi also confirm the spreading
atmosphere of unease. Possible future firings include chief
editor Le Hoang of Tuoi Tre (Youth), Nam Dong of the HCMC-based
Phap Luat (the Law) newspaper and Ly Tien Dung of the
Hanoi-based Dai Doan Ket (Great Unity) paper. All four are key
players in Vietnamese media. Under Le Hoang, Tuoi Tre grew to
become the nation's largest circulation daily, thanks largely
due to its willingness to constantly push the envelope on press
freedom in order to deliver real news that people want to read
(ref D). Nam Dong, a scion in the press community who has been
at the helm of Phap Luat for over ten years, ran into trouble
when his daily published investigative reports on stock market
manipulation by "underground bosses" connected to Party
officials and their interest groups. Editor Dung is a potential
target because of his paper's reporting on the arrest of the two
Hanoi reporters who broke the PMU 18 corruption scandal.

3. (SBU) Following four days of "working sessions" with the HCMC
authorities in late July, chief editor Le Hoang and the
editorial board of Tuoi Tre were asked to voluntarily suggest
forms of punishments for themselves. When the HCMC Communist
Youth Union, which administers the paper, carried their
suggestion of a "reprimand" -- the lightest disciplinary level
-- to the Communist Party Secretariat, ConGen contacts say that
the Party Secretariat scolded HCMC Youth Secretary General Vo
Van Thuong for being "too submissive."

4. (SBU) Thanh Nien's chief editor Nguyen Cong Khe "will be
next," according to a well-placed ConGen contact at the paper,
but his removal will likely be done more quietly at year's end.
Khe's case is special, since he is known as a well-connected
political player with strong ties to both HCMC Party Secretary
(and Politburo member) Hai and President Triet. While Thanh
Nien (Youth) has developed strong pro-reform and anti-corruption
credentials under Khe, detractors state that he has selectively
revealed corruption and wrongdoings by certain government
officials while scrupulously avoiding reporting on any scandal
with possible links to those officials who make up his political
Khe also holds some international stature -- Thanh Nien was the
organizer of the "Charming Vietnam" galas in Australia and the
UK, the Vice President of the Vietnam-US Society, and was
president of the Miss Universe organizing committee as well as
the only Vietnamese judge. One contact close to Khe said he
finds the ongoing press crackdown to be "incomprehensible" and
speculated Khe may have lost his political backing in the
Politburo. Other contacts, however, pointed out that Khe is
well-known for his ability to lobby his way out of trouble, and
may survive the current press purge despite a rumored "strong
commitment" among the central government leaders to remove him.

5. (SBU) These rumors come in the wake of a wave of firings and
official press card revocations by the Ministry of Information
and Communication in Hanoi. At Tuoi Tre, those who have already
fallen victim to the press crackdown include Deputy
Editor-in-Chief Bui Van Thanh (Ref B) and the paper's Hanoi
Office Manager Duong Duc Da Trang. At Thanh Nien, Deputy
Editor-in-Chief Nguyen Quoc Phong and General Manager Huynh Kim
Sanh were among those who were fired and had their press cards
revoked on August 1. The official reason the Ministry gave for
the dismissals were alleged "violations of professional
operations." While no official charges have yet been announced,

HO CHI MIN 00000735 002.2 OF 003

three former editors from Tuoi Tre and Thanh Nien may face
charges at the as-yet-unscheduled trial of the two Hanoi
reporters who broke the news on the PMU 18 scandal. One senior
editor told ConGen that he believes he has a "fifty-fifty"
chance of facing prosecution and additional penalties.

6. (SBU) Ministry of Public Security (MPS) Senior Colonel Nao
Tam Chau acknowledged to Hanoi Poloff that the charges against
the reporters who broke the PMU 18 story had created the
impression among many people that the government's action was
politically motivated retaliation for their exposure of
corruption; Chau said even he had this impression when he first
heard of the arrests. He asserted, however, that having seen
the evidence against the reporters he believed their trial would
expose their wrongdoing and convince people that they had indeed
acted improperly. Various contacts in HCMC have echoed a very
similar line, maintaining that the latest information they have
indicates that the two reporters purposefully reported false
information. It appears, however, that these statements do not
mean that the GVN and CPV believe that the entire PMU18 scandal
was fabricated. On August 13, the Communist Party Secretariat
asked the GVN to sack Deputy Minister of Transport Nguyen Viet
Tien for "previous irresponsibility which caused dire
consequences for...PMU 18." Since Tien was acquitted of criminal
charges earlier this year, this development adds another
quixotic twist to this tale of official corruption.

7. (SBU) A well-place press contact said the Party's Politburo
reached an unanimous decision in March to "rectify" the media,
and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, together with Standing
member of the Secretariat Truong Tan Sang, pushed strongly for
it. Media contacts at Tuoi Tre and Thanh Nien said GVN
authorities carried out a comprehensive audit of the papers'
financial records in late June, including social work and
scholarship programs. While these audits are routine, ConGen
contacts noted that they can be used as fault-finding missions
to gather evidence for potential personnel actions. Following
the audits, GVN authorities have now begun to implement Decree
64 and Ministry of Finance Circular 72, which prevent all
newspapers from directly engaging in charitable activities,
including disaster relief aid. According to the new
regulations, newspapers can still accept charitable donations
but have to forward them to the Fatherland Front for
distribution. This move was widely seen as another way to clamp
down on the independence and influence of the media.

8. (SBU) While journalists have been reluctant to meet with
ConGen officially during these uncertain times of increased
surveillance and police questioning, reporters are continuing to
blast the GVN's "rectification" campaign against the media in
their weblogs. One August 11 blog entry argued that the
crackdown has not only harmed the "people's trust in the Party
and its willingness to fight corruption," but also undermined
the "people's right to freedom of speech." The entry also
attributed the Party officials' mindset to a "lack of
democracy." Six international affairs reporters met with
Embassy officials for an off the record discussion of the
current environment on August 12, noting their growing unease
but affirming their and their colleagues' commitment to the
profession. As one editor noted, they must be cautious not to
cross certain lines that the government lays down -- a
particularly challenging task when the seems to be moving

9. (SBU) The following is a list of journalists and editors who
have faced official reprisals since May. All cases appear
related to reporting on corruption, including the PMU 18 scandal.


--Nguyen Viet Chien, Thanh Nien reporter
--Nguyen Van Hai, Tuoi Tre reporter


--Huynh Son Phuoc, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Tuoi Tre
--Nguyen Quang Vinh, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Tuoi Tre

Dismissed, with press cards revoked:

--Nguyen Quoc Phong, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Thanh Nien
--Huynh Kim Sanh, General Manager of Thanh Nien

HO CHI MIN 00000735 003.2 OF 003

--Bui Van Thanh, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Tuoi Tre
--Duong Duc Da Trang, Hanoi Office Manager of Tuoi Tre


--Nguyen Quang Thong, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Thanh Nien

10. (SBU) Despite the optimism expressed by the Ministry of
Public Security, it seems unlikely the trials of the jailed
reporters will convince average Vietnamese that the charges they
face are the result of anything other than a systematic
crackdown on media freedom. This ongoing crackdown has created
a climate of fear and uncertainty in the media community. Some
journalists are contemplating resigning from the business while
others worry that popular papers may fold under the pressure.
All feel the worst is yet to come as they await news of trial
dates for the two jailed reporters in Hanoi and other possible
prosecutions. Regardless of whether the GVN replaces these
leading lights with Party hacks, as many expect, the arrests of
reporters and sacking of some of the most experienced and
pro-reform media professionals in Vietnam certainly represents a
serious setback to freedom of the press and freedom of speech in
Vietnam. End comment.

11. (U) This message was coordinated with Embassy Hanoi.FAIRFAX

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