Vietnam urged to free anti-corruption journalist

HANOI, January 4, 2012 (AFP) - A press freedom group has urged Vietnam to free a reporter from a state-run newspaper who was arrested on suspicion of bribing a policeman after he wrote a high-profile expose of corruption among officials.

The detention of investigative journalist Hoang Khuong, 39, whose series of articles about traffic police sparked public outrage at the force last year, has raised questions about media ethics in the communist country.

"Khuong should not be charged with bribery because of what he did in the course of an undercover investigation," France-based Reporters Without Borders said in a statement seen Wednesday.

"The authorities should free him at once," the group said, adding that Khuong's reports were "in the public interest".

Khuong was arrested in Ho Chi Minh City on Monday, according to state media, and is due to be held for four months pending an investigation into allegations that he used a broker to pay a kickback of 15 million dong ($715) to a police officer in return for the release of an impounded motorbike.

The broker and police official were arrested in November after the story was published in the state-run Tuoi Tre newspaper. Khuong was suspended from work on December 3 following police pressure, said Reporters Without Borders.

Tuoi Tre's editor-in-chief Pham Duc Hai refused to give details of the case when contacted by AFP.

The arrest has prompted a debate about journalism tactics in Vietnam, with prominent blogger Osin Huy Duc saying on Facebook that the controversy could deter reporters from tackling corruption scandals.

In his post, which attracted over 50 comments and more than 270 likes, Huy Duc questioned the use of a "trap" by journalists to get a story but urged the Tuoi Tre daily to stand by its reporter.

Hanoi-based lawyer Tran Vu Hai, who is not connected to Khuong's case but has defended clients arrested for writing critically about the state, said Khuong's actions were "not good from a moral standpoint" and the journalist should have informed the police before publishing the article.

In 2008, Vietnam jailed a reporter for two years for his coverage of corruption in the transport ministry in a case that sent a chill through the country's media industry.