The government of Vietnam has decided to withdraw the online operating license of a newspaper it has accused of “fabricating information” and rescind the reporting credentials of the outlet’s editor in chief after it ran several articles exposing cases of alleged official corruption, according to officials.
The move has drawn criticism from journalists who suggested the government is taking revenge against the Nguoi Cao Tuoi, or The Elderly, newspaper and its editor in chief, Kim Quoc Hoa, for tackling the sensitive graft issue, when other official media outlets dare not.
The Ministry of Information and Communications announced Monday that it had taken the action against The Elderly, including shutting down its website, for “carrying complaints and petitions, along with baseless analysis, which led to fabricated information” in violation of Vietnam’s journalism law.
The ministry also accused The Elderly of publishing reports over the past two years with “false information aimed at defaming and discrediting organizations and individuals,” deputy minister Truong Minh Tuan told reporters, based on an inspection of the paper conducted between Nov. 7, 2014 and Jan. 7, 2015.
Tuan said the ministry had requested Hoa be removed from his post and ordered the Ministry of Public Security to further investigate the situation.
The Elderly had built up a following due to its hard-nosed reporting on several cases of alleged official corruption, but most recently ran a story which went viral about wealth amassed through bribery by a former general director of the government inspection office, Tran Van Truyen.
Truyen was disciplined by his superiors after the article was published, but when the various assets he had attained through graft remained untouched, the public became angered by the government’s lack of a stronger response.
Monday’s announcement by the Ministry of Information and Communications angered journalists, who told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that the move to punish The Elderly and its editor in chief was an abuse of power.
Pham Thanh, a former reporter for the Voice of Vietnam, said The Elderly had always been transparent in its reporting and was carrying the torch for other newspapers that had backed away from exposing official transgressions, such as Tuoi Tre, Thanh Nien and Tien Phong.
“Why would they punish the whole newspaper if just one person did something wrong,” he asked.
“Since Kim Quoc Hoa became the editor in chief of the newspaper, The Elderly has become the number one paper in fighting corruption, power abuse and government harassment … and many readers love it.”
“I think what the ministry did was illegal because Kim Quoc Hoa has been very transparent about his news and he respects the law … it’s simply abuse of power.”
‘A brave newspaper’
Col. Bui Van Bong, a journalist and former head of the People’s Military newspaper, said he had known Hoa—who is also a military officer that had seen combat—since he served as editor in chief of a news bulletin attached to the army’s logistics department.
“Because he is honest, there were many cases that the logistics department wanted to cover up, but he still revealed them in the news bulletin,” he said.
“He says whatever he thinks is right, no matter who it affects. He is always willing to bring up whatever he needs to fight for—for justice and equality in society, for the people and community—not for the benefit of any one individual.”
Bong said The Elderly had included photos and other examples of “clear evidence” of Truyen’s corruption in its reporting, “so I believe it told the truth.”
“Not only Truyen’s case, but many other cases revealed by The Elderly, to me, have shown the fighting spirit and honesty of the newspaper, using the media to bring news to the people,” he said.
“In a situation where people are hungry for news and transparency in many aspects of life, I believe The Elderly is a very brave newspaper. They have always been at the forefront, showing the truth about the bad aspects of society.”
Hoa on Monday said he was too busy to respond to questions by telephone, but in a Dec. 29 interview, the editor in chief told RFA that The Elderly had uncovered or shed additional light on around 2,500 cases of corruption in Vietnam, from village to central levels of government, over the past seven years.
He said nearly every year the newspaper had exposed at least one or two cases which had gained a viral following.
Press Freedom in Vietnam
In its annual Press Freedom Index, released in December last year, Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said that independent news providers in Vietnam are subject to enhanced Internet surveillance, draconian directives, waves of arrests and sham trials.
Vietnam is currently the world's largest jailer of bloggers and social media dissidents, it said, with 34 bloggers currently in detention of some kind.
It cited a decree issued by Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party last year banning bloggers and social media users from sharing news.
RSF labeled Vietnam an “Enemy of the Internet,” ranking the authoritarian state 174th out of 180 countries in its index.
Reported by Mac Lam for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.