Shooting the messenger

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New proposal on forcing journalists to reveal whistleblowers' identities to an expanded group of people will mortally weaken anti-corruption efforts, experts and scribes say

Customers have tea at a street stall while a man reads an article about Asia Commercial Bank (ACB) in Hanoi. Both insiders and analysts have vehemently protested a government plan to expand the grouping of officials with the mandate to ask journalists to reveal the identity of their sources. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

A government plan to expand the grouping of officials with the mandate to ask journalists to reveal the identity of their sources is facing fierce opposition from both insiders and analysts who say the proposal seeks to tighten restrictions on the press.

Analysts say the Ministry of Public Security, which is making the proposal, is focusing on the wrong target. Although it is being made in the name of fighting corruption, the proposal will achieve the opposite, weakening anti-corruption efforts, they say.

"If journalists are required to reveal their sources of information to an expanded group of people, then citizens and firms will be more reluctant to come to the media to report corruption," said James Anderson, senior governance specialist with the World Bank in Vietnam.

"The proposed changes would take the country in the wrong direction," Anderson told Vietweek.

The Ministry of Public Security said in a statement on its website late last month that among other measures to press ahead with its anti-corruption campaign, it would propose changes to the Press Law, giving more government officials the right to order journalists to divulge their sources.

Vietnam's prevailing laws require media organizations and reporters that discover or publish information on corruption cases to provide information and documents to the heads of provincial-level courts or prosecutors' offices.

But the proposal seeks to add one more category, one that would add virtually thousands of people to the list - "heads of investigative agencies" across the country.

Mai Phan Loi, a senior editor with the Phap Luat TP Ho Chi Minh (Ho Chi Minh City Law) newspaper, reiterated the point that, given the hierarchy of the police force, the provision - if adopted - would allow "thousands more" to have access to journalists' sources that should be kept confidential.

"That will send shock waves through the community of investigative journalists in Vietnam," Loi was quoted by Nguoi Dua Tin (The Messenger), a news website affiliated with the Vietnam Jurists' Association, as saying.

The public security ministry says that the law will give the fight against corruption more teeth, but this is dismissed by experts who say it will actually facilitate corruption.

"Such a provision is likely to reduce whistleblowers' trust in the media as an effective channel of reporting and may discourage both whistleblowers and media people from reporting on corruption," said Dao Nga, executive director of Towards Transparency, the national contact in Vietnam of the Berlin-based Transparency International.

Against the odds

The Ministry of Public Security has prepared this proposal in the context of Vietnam's top leadership admitting the uphill task of tackling rampant corruption.

The National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, passed a broad anti-corruption law in 2005, but its implementation has failed to deliver solid results. The country still ranks poorly in global corruption surveys such as Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index.

Vietnam ranked 123 out of 176 countries and territories on the index last year. In 2011, the country ranked 112 out of 183 nations surveyed.

At the bi-annual session of the country's legislative body last November, an overwhelming majority of lawmakers admitted the "painful fact" that many whistleblowers had fallen prey to reprisals in recent years because measures were not in place to protect them.

National surveys funded by the World Bank showed last November that the media uncovers many corruption cases before official investigators and that they keep cases alive that would otherwise die out. 

Given this situation, analysts say the authorities need to strengthen the press and give them their due, instead of weakening their capacity to expose corruption.

Nguyen Van Hau, a HCMC-based lawyer, dismissed the public security ministry-proposed changes to the Press Law as "unnecessary".

"Journalists need to have the right to keep silent to protect their sources and they themselves by law must bear responsibility for that," said Hau, who is also the vice chair of the HCMC jurists' association.

Controversial everywhere

Experts say this is a controversial topic "everywhere" in the world, from Southeast Asia to Europe and the US.

"Although many journalists here believe that they have the right and the duty to protect the identity of their sources, that is not explicitly protected in the US Constitution," said Richard Hornik, who teaches journalism at the Stony Brook University in New York.

In the US, some states have passed the so-called Shield Laws to give journalists some added protection within their jurisdictions, but there is no federal Shield Law. Many journalists here have been arguing the need for a federal Shield Law, but some analysts say it would not provide much additional protection.

"What makes the US situation relevant here is that it is only a judge who can order that confidential information be revealed," said Hornik, who retired as a senior editor with the TIME magazine.

The Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security has not submitted any written proposal to the central government or the National Assembly for approval. As of press time, no further information was available about any further developments with the controversial measure. 

But it is not the first time authorities have tried to initiate measures that would muzzle the press in effect.

A draft government decree on media management in 2009 also came under heavy fire for looking to tighten the screws on the media. The draft decree would have allowed police, customs and other agencies to issue fines against the press.

Faced with growing public outrage, the government eventually scrapped all the controversial provisions in the final draft of the decree.

Last year, there were also proposals that journalists be obliged to reveal their sources to a number of different Party and government agencies while Vietnamese lawmakers were debating amendments to the Anti-Corruption Laws.

These proposals also attracted a barrage of criticism and lawmakers eventually voted against it last November.

Analysts are also expecting lawmakers to reject the latest proposal by the public security ministry should it be brought to the table again this time. Lawmakers contacted by Vietweek said they have not received the proposal in writing and the house has not set up any time slot to debate it this year.

However, the analysts say it is worrying that authorities seem to be obsessing over who is providing the information rather than the significance of the information, in effect, tackling those who expose corruption rather than those who are exposed as corrupt.

In an interview with the Giao Duc Vietnam (Vietnam Education) news website, Do Doan Hoang, an investigative journalist with the Lao Dong (Labor) newspaper, said if the proposal were ever to come true, "I am likely to run dry of energy and confidence to carry on my investigative work.

"It's just like chopping the hands and legs of an investigative journalist who is already doing a lonely, strenuous, and risky job."

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