The arrest of banking tycoon Nguyen Duc Kien, one of Vietnam’s richest men, stunned many in the country. Kien was charged with serious illegal economic activities and is now also being investigated on charges of fraud and “deliberately violating state regulations”.
There is widespread speculation on unofficial Vietnamese websites that Kien’s arrest is linked to efforts of the Vietnamese Communist Party to attack corruption and illegal activities of interest groups.
Two points are clear. First, unofficial websites are taking the lead in providing extensive information on the arrest for ordinary people. This suggests that the official media is losing the battle to win the public’s attention. This prevents the government and the party from promoting their ideas and information.
In addition, because they are exposed to unofficial and unverifiable information, people may be misled and respond negatively, by, for example, withdrawing money from banks in which Kien is a major stakeholder. That could threaten the stability of the banking system.
Second, the official press was ignorant of Kien’s alleged illegal economic activities until his arrest. There are rumours that even high-ranking Ministry of Public Security officials were bypassed in the plan to detain Kien. Keeping plans confidential is necessary for success in such critical cases. Yet, there are many other cases in which investigations by journalists have led to arrests and convictions.
It can also be argued that a press empowered as a watchdog, with investigating power to monitor social and economic developments, would help detect problems in their initial stages, resulting in fewer such critical incidents.
When he was in power, then Communist Party general secretary Nguyen Van Linh encouraged journalists not to be influenced or threatened by people or political powers, and write about sensitive issues to contribute to the fight against corruption. This spirit, however, fell short because of a lack of a solid legal foundation.
There have been cases in which reporters were brought to trial for “revealing state secrets” In other incidents, they have been attacked by suspects for investigating their activities. Without a feeling of being well-protected, many reporters have set boundaries for their investigations. This could damage the development of the press in Vietnam.
If the speculation is correct that Kien’s arrest is part of the party’s anti-corruption campaign, then the party should continue this effort by granting more power to the press; and this time, the empowerment should come with a solid legal foundation.