The grisly murder last month of 50-year-old investigative reporter Le Hoang
Hung has prompted reflection on the relation between the print media and state
power in Vietnam.
For nearly two decades, Hung worked the police beat in several Mekong Delta
provinces just south of Ho Chi Minh City. First as a stringer for Tuoi Tre
(Youth), then as a salaried reporter for Phap Luat HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City
Justice) and, since 2002, and most recently for Nguoi Lao Dong (The Worker),
Hung covered family
squabbles, neighborhood disputes, suspicious deaths and disappearances, arrests
of gamblers, smugglers and dope dealers, and complaints about police brutality
and wayward officials.
Sometimes Hung's stories stung people in power. For example, one of his reports
last year revealed that 111 officials in Long An province had used forged high
school diplomas to win promotions. Occasionally, he would uncover something
sensitive, instances of corruption that touched the reputations of senior
officials and Communist party cadre.
The big money in rapidly urbanizing Long An province, which abuts the sprawling
Ho Chi Minh City metropolis on its south and west, is in "land classification",
or re-zoning. Hung penned dozens of articles for Nguoi Lao Dong on the
conversion of agricultural land into "development zones", such as golf courses,
industrial estates, upscale tract homes, and often shined light on dubious
In the spring and summer of 2010, his byline appeared on a series of articles
on the misappropriation of several hundred hectares of public land by officials
in the province's Tan Hung district.
The reporter was professionally respected but not distinguished, and by no
means exceptional in his journalistic zeal to uncover scandal. Though said by
his editor to be incorruptible, Hung was hardly a radical; he was a Communist
Party member, a former non-commissioned officer in the Vietnamese Army, and the
son of a Vietcong soldier.
Reportage like Hung's has become standard fare in Vietnam's leading newspapers.
Stories that speak truth to power help to build circulation, as several dozens
of Vietnam's print and digital newspapers have learned in the years since the
nation adopted a free market economic model. Moreover, as long as they speak
truth only to local power, holding officials accountable serves the interests
of the central government and party machinery.
Though the Vietnamese press is usually portrayed by foreign observers as
subservient to and heavily controlled by the party apparatus, the actual
situation is far more nuanced. Reporters and editors have learned which
subjects or situations they can cover boldly, which conflicts may only be
hinted at, and which are forbidden.
They may be commended if their stories show where local officials have failed
to implement central policies correctly or, indeed, have deliberately ignored
or distorted instructions from the top. Editors are often disciplined, however,
if they run stories that suggest that central policies themselves are fatally
flawed, or that a taint of scandal attaches to higher-ups.
University of Iowa professor Mark Sidel points out that reporting on legal
issues, including some violations of law by police and other authorities, has
been encouraged by the party and government seeking to legitimize the
strengthening of legal frameworks. "In effect," Sidel says, "Vietnam's print
media has been granted greater autonomy to report - sometimes in controversial
or lurid detail - on a wide variety of social, legal and other topics."
Torching the messenger
In the early hours of January 19, someone apparently entered Hung's home
through an open window, doused the sleeping journalist with gasoline, and set
him afire. His screams roused his wife, Tran Thi Thuy Lieu, and two daughters
who were asleep on the floor above. By the time the flames were extinguished,
Hung had suffered third-degree burns on much of his body. The reporter died in
Saigon's Cho Ray Hospital 10 days later.
Hung's assailants are still unknown. The police are investigating and say they
have targeted some suspects. Both media and official comment has been
circumspect about who may be responsible for Hung's torching. Even the calls
for the speedy apprehension of his assailants by Nguoi Lao Dong and other
Vietnamese newspapers have been quite low key, as if they suspect the crime may
not have been related to Hung's reporting.
Hung's death nearly coincided with the entry into force of amendments to the
Vietnamese Press Law that have been touted by Hanoi as better securing
reporters' rights. They impose substantially greater penalties on anyone who
interferes with or harms a journalist while he is covering a story. Officials,
according to the new Press Ordinance, are required "to cooperate with the
The same ordinance has been roundly criticized by Reporters Without Borders
(RSF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), both press freedom
watchdogs. The international organizations have objected to increased sanctions
on publishing "non-authorized" information or information "not in the interests
of the people", and a requirement that reporters must identify their sources.
RSF and CPJ have additionally condemned the attack on Hung, speculating that it
may have had something to do with his reportage.
Though the provisions of edicts like the new Press Ordinance normally are
enforced selectively, however prescriptive their language, it's fair to say
that Vietnam's 17,000 licensed journalists are paying attention and wondering
if the new ordinance really signals a tighter rein on the media.
In an address on January 5, senior politburo member Truong Tan Sang suggested
that bringing papers to heel may indeed be the regime's intention. Sang
criticized the commercialism, shortage of sensitivity and social responsibility
and persistent "focus on the adverse side of society, [which] harms businesses,
producers and consumers" of some newspapers. In the event, the attack on Hung
poses a test of the regime's intentions.
On February 5 came an unexpected twist. Returning to print after a three day
Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday, national newspapers reported that Hung's wife,
Tran Thi Thuy Lieu, has been intensively questioned by the Long An provincial
police. Nguoi Lao Dong and Tuoi Tre both quote unnamed "sources" as saying that
Lieu is an inveterate gambler who was in the habit of wagering large sums at a
casino just across the nearby Cambodian border.
She had lost so much money on wagers that, according to Nguoi Lao Dong's
source, she had implored her husband to sell their house to repay her debts.
Thanh Nien on February 7 added more detail: Lieu had run up a tab of 1.5
billion dong (US$75,000), Hung had told friends that he and his wife had
"differences", and over 20 people, including gambling buddies and Lieu's
brother in law, have already been questioned. Lieu, meanwhile, is said to
maintain that she visited the casinos only on business to sell cold towels.
The police investigating the crime knew Hung well. They were his subjects and
his sources for decades. It's possible that these same police have generated a
conspiracy theory to obscure official complicity in the attack. That's not
unknown in Vietnam - or elsewhere. So far, there's been no suggestion that Hung
ratted on his wife as he lay dying. Whether it's a chilling tale of press
repression or simply a sordid domestic scandal, the circumstances of his death
are the sort of story Hung would have likely pursued with vigor.
David Brown is a retired American diplomat who writes on contemporary
Vietnam. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.