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Vietnamese journalist jailed for undercover bribery

7 Sep

New York, September 7, 2012–A Vietnamese journalist who bribed a police officer during an undercover investigation to expose corruption was sentenced today to four years in prison, according to local and international news reports.

A Ho Chi Minh City court convicted Nguyen Van Khuong, who uses the penname Hoang Khuong and works for the Vietnamese-language daily Tuoi Tre, of giving bribes in connection with his paying a police officer 15 million Vietnamese dong (US$720) to overlook a traffic violation in June 2011, according to news reports. The journalist was detained on January 2, news reports said.

The court sentenced the officer who received the bribe to five years, and also jailed four other individuals who were involved in brokering the deal, news reports said.

Khuong and Tuoi Tre said the bribe had been part of an undercover operation to expose police corruption, though the paper’s editorial board reprimanded and suspended the journalist for his methods, Tuoi Tre reported. In 2011, the paper published Vietnamese and English articles called “Traffic cop takes bribe to return bike,” which detailed the transaction.

Khuong denied any wrongdoing in court. “If I had not written the two articles [exposing corruption], would I be standing in the dock now?” he said in a statement that was cheered by colleagues and his supporters, according to Tuoi Tre‘s English-language website. The Associated Press reported that Tuoi Tre representatives were not permitted to give evidence during the two-day trial.

“Bribing a police officer is against the law, but Nguyen Van Khuong’s motivation was to expose corruption, which is the essence of investigative reporting,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Four years in jail is clearly a disproportionate punishment.”

Vietnamese journalists have faced consequences for exposing corruption in the past. Nguyen Van Hai, a reporter for Tuoi Tre, was given a two-year non-custodial sentence in 2008, while Nguyen Viet Chien, with the Vietnamese daily Thanh Nien, was jailed for two years for reporting on government corruption. Deputy editors at both Thanh Nien and Tuoi Tre were removed from their posts for critical coverage of their trials.

Domestic news media are heavily controlled in Vietnam, where authorities frequently jail bloggers and journalists for writings perceived to be critical of the Communist Party government, according to CPJ research. At least nine journalists were imprisoned in Vietnam when CPJ conducted its annual survey on December 1, 2011, making the country, the fifth worst jailer of journalists in the world.

  • For more data and analysis on Vietnam, visit CPJ’s Vietnam page here.

from Committee to Protect Journalists

Cambodia – Call for release of Cambodian rights defender and broadcaster

7 Sep

7 September 2012

Detained Cambodian radio broadcaster Mam Sonando has been active in the human rights movement

Detained Cambodian radio broadcaster Mam Sonando has been active in the human rights movement


(CCHR/IFEX) – In a letter to the Cambodian authorities, over 30 IFEX members expressed deep concern over the arbitrary detention of rights defender Mam Sonando.

H.E. Hun Sen
Prime Minister
Phnom Penh
Kingdom of Cambodia

Cc H.E. Hor Nam Hong, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Kingdom of Cambodia
H.E. Ang Vong Vathna, Minister of Justice, Kingdom of Cambodia

7 September 2012

Your Excellency,

We, the undersigned members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), are writing to express our deep concern regarding the arbitrary detention of Cambodian human rights defender and radio broadcaster Mam Sonando. Mam Sonando was arrested on what we believe are unwarranted charges of secession on 15 July 2012, and has been held ever since at Prey Sar Prison in Phnom Penh. Mam Sonando is the leader of advocacy group the Association of Democrats and founder of Beehive Radio, one of only three independent radio stations in Cambodia.

The charges against Mam Sonando relate to a land dispute in Kratie province, located in the east of Cambodia, where 15,000 hectares of land were granted to the Russian company, Casotim, through an economic land concession. On 16 May this year, hundreds of armed police and military police stormed Pro Ma village in an effort to evict around 1,000 families living in the concession area. When villagers refused to move from their land the authorities then opened fire causing the death of 14-year-old Heng Chantha.

After the incident, police arrested a number of individuals from the area, who they said were secessionists, seeking to gain independence from Cambodia. It was claimed by the Royal Government of Cambodia that the so-called secessionists had been plotting with the Democrat Association, led by Mam Sonando. Evidence for these claims has never been produced, and the so-called secessionists have denied any links with Mam Sonando or his organisation. Nevertheless, on 26 June 2012, Prime Minister, you made a speech at Phnom Penh’s Koh Pich, in which you called for the arrest of Mam Sonando on the grounds that he was leading a plot to overthrow the government and attempting to establish a state within a state.

The day before your speech, on 25 June, a report was broadcast on Beehive Radio relating to a complaint made to the International Criminal Court (ICC) by the Khmer People’s Power Movement (KPPM), accusing your government of crimes against humanity. This has led to the belief that the charges against Mam Sonando are related to his exercise of the right to freedom of expression, which is protected under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Cambodia is a party.

We are further concerned because Mam Sonando is over 70 years old. He has become increasingly ill in prison, where he has been held in sub-standard conditions for more than six weeks. Despite his illness, and the fact that he returned from abroad to answer charges against him, two bail requests submitted by his lawyer have been denied.

Considering the arbitrary nature of Mam Sonando’s arrest and detention, we call on your government and all the recipients of this letter to strive towards his immediate and unconditional release without charge. The hearing date for the case has been set for 11 September 2012. If Mam Sonando’s liberty is not restored in the meantime and the hearing goes ahead, we urge the you to do your utmost to ensure that this man, who has the right to be presumed innocent before proven guilty, will be granted a fair and open trial in order to clear his name.

Thank you and we look forward to hearing from you.



International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) Asia-Pacific

Cc Hillary Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State
Yang Jiechi, Minister of Foreign Affairs, China
Surya Subedi, United Nations Special Rapporteur for Cambodia

via IFEX

Blog: Mission Journal: Putin imposes harsh climate on Russia

7 Sep

A security guard at the Christ the Saviour Cathedral, right, runs toward Pussy Riot supporters holding Cyrillic letters reading 'Blessed are the Merciful' in Moscow on Aug. 15. (AP/Novaya Gazeta, Yevgeny Feldman)

Record-high temperatures swept most of Europe this summer, but in Moscow the weather, much like the political climate, was chilly. I spent three months in the capital at the invitation of the Russian Union of Journalists, and witnessed how Vladimir Putin’s third term in office kicked off with the passage of restrictive laws, harassment and prosecution of dissent, the jailing of an irreverent punk-rock band, and death threats by a top-ranking official against a prominent editor. 

On Sunday, May 6, the day before Putin’s inauguration, an estimated 20,000 gathered in downtown Moscow for a march toward Bolotnaya Ploshchad, a square within walking distance of the Kremlin, to protest what they saw as Putin’s illegitimate claim on Russia’s top office.

That day, authorities limited access to Moscow’s downtown, closing adjacent metro stations and streets. The explanation?–a scheduled rehearsal of the May 9 Victory Day parade, an annual demonstration of Russia’s military might. In the preceding days, opposition activists from Russia’s regions reported being prevented from traveling to Moscow to attend the protest. The websites of several independent and pro-opposition media outlets, including the prominent business daily Kommersant, the radio station Ekho Moskvy, and the online television channel Dozhd, all experienced distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks that disabled them on May 6.

When protesters tried to break through a cordon of geared-up riot police to head toward the Kremlin, tensions rose and a confrontation ensued. Some protesters threw bottles and stones at the police, who pushed and clubbed them. Amid frustration and adrenaline, the clash resulted in reports of about 30 injuries, all of police officers. It was unclear how many protesters were hurt, but more than 400, including the rally organizers, were arrested.

The Kremlin’s reaction to the clashes was instantaneous. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Dozhd he thought police had acted softly towards demonstrators, whom he referred to as provocateurs. “I’d rather they [police] behave more harshly.” His comment signaled what was to come: an unapologetic crackdown on dissent, critical media, and civil society.

A month after stepping into office, Putin signed into law a bill levying steep fines on protest organizers and participants, and restricting their rights to peaceful assembly. The penalty imposed on individual participants in rallies “unsanctioned” by the government is 300,000 rubles (more than US$9,000); the penalty is double for rally organizers. The figures are exorbitant in a country where the average monthly salary is less than 24,000 rubles (around US$740). By mid-June, 15 activists were criminally charged with separate counts of incitement to, organizing of, or participation in mass disorder, as well as violence toward law enforcement, in connection with the May 6 events. Police also raided the homes of several opposition leaders, most notably 36-year-old anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny, who has emerged as the boldest, most charismatic figure of the fledgling protest movement. Navalny would later be charged with “embezzlement” –a crime that carries up to 10 years in prison–after Russia’s Investigative Committee resurrected a case against him that previously had been closed for lack of evidence.

The Kremlin did not wince at the group exodus, post May 6, of human rights defenders, NGO leaders, and civil activists from the presidential human rights council–a liaison office between Russia’s top leaders and civil society. (Among the prominent figures who departed were human rights defender and former Nobel Peace Prize nominee Svetlana Gannushkina, veteran media rights advocate Aleksei Simonov, and legendary founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group Lyudmila Alekseyeva.) On the contrary, Putin proceeded to sign a bill that de-facto outlawed civil society. The legislation, which came into effect on July 21, obligates all NGOs that receive international funding and are involved in “political activity”–without a clear definition of that term–to register as foreign agents with Russia’s Justice Ministry. Needless to say, having to register as a foreign agent in Russia is like being forced to wear the proverbial scarlet letter. The Kremlin has long sought to vilify activists who receive grants from abroad as being bought by the West to create unrest and undermine Russia’s stability. Most recently, in early spring, a series of so-called documentaries aired repeatedly in prime time on the state-controlled NTV national television channel, portraying civil society leaders as traitors paid by the U.S. State Department to stage and participate in anti-government rallies.

The registration process for NGOs in Russia is already a cumbersome, costly, and time-consuming endeavor set by a restrictive law. But the new “foreign agents” legislation adds extra reporting-to-the-government requirements. Colleagues at the Russian Union of Journalists told me the law would create extra work for the already-stretched accounting department and make the group more vulnerable to bureaucratic harassment.

Nine days after signing the restrictive NGO bill, Putin signed two other laws that directly harm independent media. The first one recriminalizes defamation in the country–a rollback of then-President Dmitry Medvedev’s decriminalization of libel and insult last November. In returning defamation to the criminal books, Putin approved a maximum fine of 5 million rubles (US$150,000) for those convicted–a significant jump from the previously provisioned 3,000 rubles (US$100). Such a sum would be prohibitive for independent and pro-opposition media in Russia, and makes them extra vulnerable to politically motivated prosecution. A staffer with the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta told me that after Putin signed the law, editors convened a meeting with legal advisers in anticipation of politically motivated defamation claims.

The second bill Putin signed into law on July 30 allowed for websites carrying “unlawful content” to be blacklisted in Russia. Though ostensibly created to curb child pornography, the law’s vague definitions of unlawful content–including such stretchy concepts of “making war propaganda” and “inciting inter-ethnic hatred”–allows for broad interpretation. Observers worry that the law could be selectively used to silence critical online content. In recent years, the Internet has emerged as a home for independent, alternative news and views, as well as civil and political activism. The new law allows authorities to close down websites without a court order.

The beginning of Putin’s third term in office was marred by politically motivated prosecutions and harassment.

In one prominent example, Aleksandr Lebedev, a banker and key shareholder in Novaya Gazeta, reported being harassed by police, who told him they had “some order from above” to investigate his business, The New York Times said in early August. “The special services steamrolled my business into the pavement,” Lebedev told the news agency Interfax. “I give up.” It is unclear what that could mean for Novaya Gazeta, which is one of a handful of publications in Russia that investigates top-level wrongdoing and publishes searing commentary on the country’s power structures.

Exactly such commentary apparently pushed Aleksandr Bastrykin, the head of the federal Investigative Committee–the body tasked with investigating severe crimes in Russia–to threaten the life of Novaya Gazeta deputy editor Sergey Sokolov in early June. In a self-described “emotional breakdown” Bastrykin ordered his guards to put the journalist in a car and drive him to a forest outside of Moscow, where he asked his guards to leave them alone and proceeded to make graphic death threats against Sokolov. Sokolov left the country, fearing for his life. Bastrykin later apologized for his conduct at a press conference with Novaya Gazeta‘s editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov, who said he considered the matter to be settled. But many asked whether offering an apology is enough redemption for a top-ranking official in charge of investigating severe crimes–including murders of journalists.

An apology was not enough, meanwhile, to keep three members of the feminist punk-rock band Pussy Riot out of prison for singing in a church. In perhaps the most emblematic case yet of how far Putin 2.0 is determined to go to crush dissent, the performers were tried and jailed for staging a flash mob in Moscow’s main Orthodox Church in February. During the irreverent stunt, the band, wearing colorful balaclavas, “prayed” to the Virgin Mother to “banish Putin.” Even though Pussy Riot’s stunt, upon the band’s own admission, was a purely political statement, authorities insisted it was an act of religious hatred. Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church and a staunch Putin supporter, publicly condemned it as “blasphemous.”

Despite an international outcry, including from international megastars such as Sting, Madonna, and Paul McCartney, a Moscow court pronounced 22-year-old Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 24-year-old Maria Alyokhina, and 30-year-old Yekaterina Samutsevich, guilty of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” and slammed them with two-year prison sentences. Defending the court’s decision, Putin told the Kremlin-sponsored English-language television channel Russia Today, that the “state is obligated to protect the feelings of the faithful.”

The band’s supporters disagree. “If they had sung ‘Virgin Mother, save Putin,’ there would have been no trial at all,” Yevgeniya Albats, editor-in-chief of the independent newsweekly The New Times, told Ekho Moskvy. 

from Committee to Protect Journalists

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