Press sharpens its teeth on eviction battle coverage

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With the PM on its side, the Vietnamese press should not be afraid to flex its muscles when supporting maligned farmers, analysts say


Vietnamese farmers working on a rice field in the northern province of Tuyen Quang.

Before Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung criticized local officials for an illegal land eviction that ended in a shoot-out last month, he gave the media a pat on the back.

"The media have provided timely, sufficient, diversified, and profound coverage and analysis on different aspects of the incident," Dung was quoted as saying by Vu Duc Dam, Chief of the Government Office, at a press briefing on February 10.

According to Dam, Dung also appreciated the role of the media in exposing the wrongdoings of local authorities involved in the high-profile land clash in the northern port city of Hai Phong that riveted the nation last month. Dung urged the media to keep up the good work in "orienting the public."

The extensive media coverage of this issue which included investigative reports and myriad editorials prompted the PM to condemn the attempted eviction of a local fish farmer as "illegal." Dung also demanded that local officials responsible for ordering the eviction be punished in accordance with the law.

Analysts are now debating how important a robust press is to anti-corruption efforts and whether the Vietnamese press has what it takes to contribute.

"A vigorous press is an important support to the central government when it seeks to curb corruption and other bad actions at the local level," David Brown, a retired American diplomat who writes on contemporary Vietnam, told Vietweek.

Brown also penned a recent Asia Times article that looked to analyze the Tien Lang case. He wrote: "Media reporting daringly shaped a consensus that if the state and Party do not take resolute and effective action to subdue corruption and bully-boy behavior by village officials across the country, they run the risk of losing the loyalty of the rural population."

A voice for farmers

Nguyen Thi Thuong came home on January 5 to find her farm house besieged by police and soldiers. Gunfire and explosions shook the earth and wounded officers were carried from the scene on stretchers.

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Thuong did not see her husband at the eviction-turned-shootout scene last month in Hai Phong's Tien Lang District, nor has she seen him since.

But Thuong said she believed the situation would have been much worse without the "great help" from the media across the country.

"My family is extremely grateful to the support the press has been giving to my husband," Thuong told Vietweek on the phone. "Without it, our quagmire would only go from bad to worse."

Her husband, Doan Van Vuon, allegedly used homemade landmines and improvised shotguns to resist an armed force of 100 soldiers and police who moved to evict him and take back government land he had converted for aquaculture. Six police and soldiers were injured and Vuon and three of his relatives were arrested for attempted murder.

Before PM Dung had his say, local media reports had already accused the Tien Lang District government of cheating Vuon's family by giving him a 14-year lease in 1993 instead of 20 years under Vietnam's prevailing Land Laws.

The case grabbed both local and international headlines and earned Vuon extraordinary widespread sympathy from the public, retired officials, and even a former president. They all lambasted local officials for the forced eviction and considered Vuon a hero whose plight represents that of many Vietnamese farmers.

When the 20-year land grants expire next year, millions of Vietnamese farmers could have their land seized and redistributed. All land belongs to the state in Vietnam, which does not technically allow land ownership but instead grants land-usage rights.

Local government leaders in Tien Lang District and Vinh Quang Commune, where the clash happened, have been rebuked, suspended and could face dismissal for orchestrating the illegal eviction without offering any compensation and allegedly vandalizing a house Vuon owns outside the eviction area.

Can the press press?

Brown concluded in his Asia Times piece: "The public debate over the Tien Lang shootout that played out in Vietnam's daily papers has clearly strengthened their hand and in the process reinvigorated the country's whistle-blowing reporters."

But other analysts were more cautious.

"Land disputes have been a persistent problem that the Vietnamese government needs to resolve," said Carl Thayer, a Vietnam analyst at the University of New South Wales in Canberra.

"In the case of the land dispute at Tien Lang, national issues were at the heart of the matter"¦ Once senior retired officials spoke out and especially after Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung intervened, it was clear to the public which way the wind was blowing," Thayer said.

After the Tien Lang incident broke out, local media reports complained that local authorities had done whatever they could to hamper the work of journalists who were scouring the shootout scene for further information.

Tien Lang is in fact only one of many cases in which Vietnamese reporters have found it difficult to do their job in the face of obstacles.

A study released by the Vietnamese NGO Center for Research on Development Communication last week found that around 88 percent of 327 journalists surveyed said they were often hindered from performing their duties.

The preliminary findings of a foreign study said last November that the corruption-related coverage in seven newspapers over a five-year period has fallen. Most stories were about happenings on the provincial level, even though the papers were either national papers or targeting a national audience, it tentatively said.

A foreign expert who studies Vietnamese media said the strong message PM Nguyen Tan Dung conveyed after the Tien Lang case could be a good foundation on which to beef up the power of the press to tackle corruption ground-up from "the lowest level."

But this should not be the ultimate goal, the expert said on condition of anonymity.

"Only when corruption can be openly debated at all levels of society and politics can it truly be tackled, and only then can the public's trust truly be regained."

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