In a conviction condemned by rights groups, a Vietnamese journalist has been sentenced to four years in jail for offering a bribe to a policeman which he said was part of an investigation to expose police corruption.
Hoang Khuong, 39, a reporter with the official Tuoi Tre newspaper, was charged with paying 15 million dong (U.S. $715) to a traffic police officer, through a broker, in return for the release of an impounded motorbike.
"This sentence is as unfair as it is disgraceful," said Christophe Deloire, the director-general of Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based global media watchdog.
"By sanctioning Khuong for his investigative reporting and his two stories on police corruption, Judge Nguyen Thi Thu Thuy has transformed a public service into a crime punishable by imprisonment," he said.
"The fact that the authorities only learned about this matter after Khuong’s articles were published proves his honesty. And by citing his reporting as an extenuating circumstance, the verdict acknowledged its usefulness."
Reporters Without Borders urged the court to overturn the conviction and release Khuong.
The traffic policeman who accepted the bribe was given five years in jail at the joint trial in southern Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City.
Khoung, who uses the pen name of Hoang Khuong, said he would not have been jailed if he did not carry out the undercover reporting to publicize police corruption.
"I am wondering whether I would be standing here behind bars if I had not written the articles," Khuong told the court at his hearing, Tuoi Tre said.
"I had no other motive than to help efforts to reduce the number of traffic accidents" by exposing police corruption, he said.
Khuong’s stories about police officers who take bribes to turn a blind eye to traffic violations have made him famous and have prompted angry criticism of the police by the public, Reporters Without Borders said.
The case has led to public outcry in communist Vietnam and prompted a debate about the state of local journalism, with many experts expressing fears the case could deter reporters from tackling corruption, according to Agence France-Presse.
Vietnamese journalists expressed disappointment with the verdict, with many taking to social networking site Facebook to voice fears that it was part of a broader crackdown on the media, the news agency said.
"Reporters are seen as the foot soldiers in this cultural, ideological battle" with the communist regime, journalist Mai Thanh Hai wrote on his personal blog.
"But the regime cannot be protected by the use of those illogical, barbarous acts," he wrote, referring to Khuong's jail term, according to the news agency.
Tuoi Tre reported that prosecutors had requested a sentence of six to seven years in prison but that the court gave him a lesser one on the grounds that his contribution as journalist should be taken into account.
Vietnam is ranked 172nd out of 179 countries in the 2011/2012 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
The group said that with at least five journalists and 19 netizens currently in jail, Vietnam is the "world’s third biggest prison" for bloggers and cyber-dissidents, after China and Iran.
It is also one of the 12 countries that Reporters Without Borders calls "Enemies of the Internet" because of their systematic use of cyber-censorship.
Reported by RFA's Vietnamese service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.