For Vietnam, immunity for bribe givers a dicey move: analysts

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Experts say new proposal would fail in its intention of encouraging people to report corruption 

Residential and office buildings are pictured behind a newly developed quarter in western Hanoi on May 7. A proposed regulation that will not prosecute bribe givers could encourage corruption instead of encouraging exposes, critics say. PHOTO: AFP

A proposal to not press charges against all bribe givers has attracted controversy, with experts saying it could create a loophole that may increase rather than decrease corruption while doing little to encourage or protect whistleblowers.

"Legalizing the paying of bribes, even among those who report them, risks making matters worse, fostering an even more permissive attitude at exactly a time when attitudes needs to move the other way," said James Anderson, senior governance specialist at the World Bank in Vietnam.

He said rather than experimenting with such approaches, Vietnam should focus instead on what has already been demonstrated to work, like transparency and access to information.

At a conference on corruption last week, Nguyen Quoc Hiep, director of the Inspection Science Institute under the Government Inspectorate said the government should reconsider the issue of prosecuting bribe givers.

"In some countries, the bribe givers are not punished. This is an important channel in detecting corruption because only the bribe givers know the bribery amount, the place and the reason for it," he said.

Vietnam's Penal Code stipulates that bribe givers are not prosecuted if they were forced to pay and if they reported the crime to relevant agencies before it was detected.

But Ha Hai of the Ho Chi Minh City Bar Association said the relevant article in the Penal Code has not been implemented thoroughly and many bribe givers have been prosecuted despite meeting the conditions for immunity.

In the Philippines, immunity is granted to whistleblowers who offer bribes to public officials. The South Korean Anti-Corruption Act also states that criminal acts of people who blow the whistle and expose a crime will be pardoned or their punishment mitigated. In Malaysia, similar statutory provisions apply to those exposing money laundering.

But with the practice of giving and receiving bribes becoming so deep-seated in Vietnam that it is not perceived as bribery, analysts are not convinced that granting full immunity from prosecution to all bribe givers will encourage whistleblowing.

"For many forms of corruption, especially the grand corruption involving large sums of money, both parties are willing participants, both stand to gain, and neither would report the transaction even if the law allowed the payer to do so without penalty," Anderson told Vietweek.

According to a corruption survey conducted by the World Bank together with the Government Inspectorate last year, more than 75 percent of firms who paid bribes said they did so without being asked, and 63 percent said the bribes create "unspoken mechanisms to get things done quickly." 

Citizens were much more likely to say that paying was "better than coping with complex procedures," or that "many people do the same."

The survey also found people already are often unwilling to report corruption because: they don't trust the anti-corruption officials or agency; they don't want conflict or retaliation; or they just don't expect results.

According to Transparency International's 2013 Global Corruption Barometer findings, "It wouldn't make any difference" and "I'm afraid of the consequences" are the two most common reasons people in Southeast Asia region in general and in Vietnam in particular cite for not reporting corruption.

"If these are the reasons people are not willing to report corruption now, why would legalizing the paying of bribes improve things?" Anderson said.

Dao Nga, executive director of the Vietnam chapter of Transparency International, said legalizing bribes to obtain services is considered to be illegal under the United Nations Conventions Against Corruption to which Vietnam is a signatory.

"Therefore, if applicable across the board, it could send a very mixed signal about fighting corruption in the country," she said.

A foreign diplomat in Vietnam, who declined to be named, said the proposed regulation may prompt more foreign companies to report being forced to pay bribes but this may not be the case for Vietnamese companies.

"For the local companies, I think the practice of paying bribes may be too entrenched or they may not trust that the law will really protect them," she said.

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By Vietweek Staff, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the August 2nd issue of our print edition Vietweek)

(AN DIEN contributed to this report)

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