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Attack shows all reporters at risk in Vietnam

Farmers protest the seizure of their land for industrial projects in Hun Yen province. Two journalists were assaulted by police recently for covering the forced eviction of villagers. (Reuters)

Recent physical assault on two state media reporters in Vietnam underscores the risks of reporting on increasingly sensitive land issues in the communist-ruled country. The attack on the reporters signals a potential extension of the media crackdown that until now has targeted mainly unsanctioned journalists and bloggers.

Nguyen Ngoc Nam and Han Phi Long, both reporters with the official Radio Voice of Vietnam, were severely kicked and beaten on April 24 while covering the forced eviction of around 1,000 villagers from their farmlands. The land was being cleared to make way for a massive privately built housing project in the northern Hun Yen province, The Associated Press reported.

An estimated 3,000 police and private security guards, many dressed in anti-riot gear, were involved in the operation that resulted in at least 20 arrests, according to AP.

The incident was captured on video and later posted to video-sharing website YouTube, providing raw footage of state-sponsored violence against journalists that would never be aired on the state-dominated, tightly censored mainstream television stations. For unknown reasons, the footage of the incident is no longer available on the video-sharing site.

AP reported that both reporters were wearing helmets at the time of the assault and that Nam was handcuffed and temporarily detained at a district prosecutor's office. He was shortly thereafter released and has since filed a formal complaint, according to news reports.

Radio Voice of Vietnam, a state-controlled national broadcaster that also maintains an English-language news website, has asked provincial authorities for an explanation for their actions.

Nguyen Khac Hao, vice governor of Hun Yen province, told a government conference held after the suppression that the provincial government had handled the incident properly, AP reported citing state media. He said "fake" video clips were created to "smear and slander" the government.

While Vietnam's state media reporters are strictly barred from reporting critically on national level politics and politicians, they are in instances given wider berth to report on local level corruption and abuse of power, including among Party cadres.

Probing and persistent local media coverage and newspaper commentaries on a shootout between police and a family of fish farmers in Haiphong City's Tien Lang district earlier this year eventually forced Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to personally deal with the land seizure-related incident.

Dung's principal assistant, Chief Cabinet Secretary Vu Duc Dam, later commended the media's coverage of the affair, saying the press had "provided plenty of timely reports" that had "helped the central government agencies see the matter clearly and proceed to deal with it in an appropriate way."

So far, Dung and other central authorities have remained mum about the police assault on reporters Nam and Long. That could be because the Tien Lang shootout was small fry compared to the 5,000-hectare housing project being built by Viet Hung Co. Ltd., a private property company known to have top-level government ties.

But if Dung's government was sincere about its admiration of the local media's role in reporting the Tien Lang incident, it should reaffirm that sentiment by ensuring justice is served for Nam and Long, and stating clearly that future state abuses against journalists covering the news will be punished and not tolerated at the highest level.

[Reporting from Bangkok]

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