A journalist in Vietnam was charged on Friday with bribing police officials, an act he protests he committed as part of an undercover investigation.
Hoang Khuong, 39 was sentenced for four years after being accused of paying 15mn dong ($715) to a traffic police officer via a broker to secure the release of an impounded motorcycle.
Khuong, who works for the Tuoi Tre newspaper told the court: “I am wondering whether I would be standing here behind bars if I had not written the articles."
"I had no other motive than to help efforts to reduce the number of traffic accidents" by exposing police corruption, he said. He argued that through the course of his work he had made a journalistic error as opposed to committing a criminal act.
Khuong’s lawyer, Phan Trung Hoai argued that the defendant should have been exempt from criminal responsibility, but his argument was rejected by the judge who said that the journalist had been serving his own interests.
The traffic police officer who accepted the payment was handed a five year jail sentence at the joint trial in Ho Chi Minh City.
Tuoi Tre’s editorial board admitted partial responsibility for the shortcomings committed by their reporter in putting together the bribery story. They said that they would continue to offer Khuong assistance, as well as providing help to his mother, who is currently seriously ill, and his wife and children.
Deterrent to other journalists
According to experts, the decision to jail Khuong will likely lead many other reporters to steer clear of tackling issues related to corruption for fear of prosecution.
Reporters in Vietnam have already been punished for writing about corruption in the past, including Nguyan Van Hai, a fellow Tuoi Tre reporter who was given a two-year non-custodial sentence in 2008 and Nguyen Viet Chien, who was handed a two-year jail sentence.
The court ruling has prompted journalists to express concerns over the state of journalism in the communist-controlled country.
Three bloggers were accused of “propaganda against the state,” earlier this year and could face up to 20 years in jail for posting on banned websites, prompting the US authorities to call for their release.
Media watchdogs have highlighted a worrying trend of government authorities exerting control over journalists and members of the media in Vietnam
Executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Joel Simon said: “Bribing a police officer is against the law, but Nguyen Van Khuong's motivation was to expose corruption, which is the essence of investigative reporting. Four years in jail is clearly a disproportionate punishment."
"This sentence is as unfair as it is disgraceful. 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,” Reporters Without Borders director general, Christophe Deloire 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. We urge the court to overturn this conviction and release him without delay," he added.
Vietnam is currently ranked 172nd out of 179 countries on the RSF World Press Freedom Index.
Source: DCMF, AFP, RSF, CPJ,