Two Vietnamese journalists went on trial Tuesday in Hanoi for aggressive reporting on a multi-million dollar political corruption scandal for which the Church in Vietnam has been victimized and scapegoated.

Reporters Nguyen Van Hai, 33, and Nguyen Viet Chien, 56, who have worked for two of Vietnam’s largest dailies, have been charged with "abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state" in the Hanoi People's Court hearing. They face up to 7 years jail.

On trial with them are two senior officers accused of providing the reporters “secrets of state”, Major General Pham Xuan Quac, and Senior Lieutenant Colonel Dinh Van Huynh, who also face up to 7 years jail.

PMU 18 scandal.

The two reporters helped expose a shocking scandal in a transport ministry unit, known as PMU 18, where officials pilfered development funds meant for roads and bridges and bet much of it on European soccer. Project Management Unit 18 (PMU-18) is a bureau within the transportation ministry for road construction and other infrastructure projects. It has a budget of 2 billion USD, which includes funds from overseas donors, notably Japan, the European Union, Australia and the World Bank

The trial at Hanoi People's Court on Tuesday Oct. 14,2008
Late in January 2006, Bui Tien Dung, the then Executive Director of PMU-18, was detained, and it was reported that 1.8 million US dollars had been embezzled to gamble on soccer matches. Police found files inside the unit's computers revealing that over 200 employees at the unit had participated in the gambling. He was also accused of bribing luxury vehicles for other government officials, and using the unit’s funds to pay for prostitutes.

Deputy Transport Minister Nguyen Viet Tien, a former chief of PMU-18, was soon also detained in April that year. Transport Minister Dao Dinh Binh tendered his resignation a short while later.

Aggressive reports on the scandal had exposed the true color of the regime and caused great concerns of the Communist leadership as stated in the prosecution brief on Tuesday: "Hostile forces, reactionaries and political opportunists took advantage of the case to increase their counter-activities, asking for a change in leadership in the party and state apparatus, stirring up activities to disturb security and order and harming preparations for the 10th party congress."

Tables were turned after Thanh Nien (Young People) and Tuoi Tre (Youth) dailies had published a report titled “Bui Tien Dung reveals 40 others took bribes to cover up.”

The “others” were understood as very important officials. Even officials in the Prime Minister's office were investigated; and the General Secretary's son-in-law was implicated. A vice chief of police was implicated and withdrew his name from the list of delegates to the National Congress.

The scandal generated a great public outcry, and a campaign for more democracy and free press in Vietnam, and controversy in other countries and at organizations that provided Official Development Assistance (ODA) to the country.

Politburo took action.

In an interview with Nhan Dan newspaper on March 27, 2006, Phan Dien, a permanent member of the Politburo commented, “The PMU 18 scandal is a serious case involving gambling away a huge amount of money. It also involves corruption, giving and taking bribes. The people involved in gambling have huge assets they embezzled from public funds. A number of government officials involved in this case offered bribes and received bribes. More thorough investigations have revealed that some instances were ignored or hushed up. The case reveals a serious decline in the ethics of some state officials and party members, some of them in high places. The (Communist) Party and the government vow to disclose wrongdoings by organizations or individuals, whoever they are. Those who seek to obstruct the investigation will also be punished.”

However, when reports seemed to expose more officials who had involved in the scandal, tables were turned.

On March 27, 2007, the Ministry of Public Security launched investigations into allegations accusing numerous reporters of divulging state secrets and taking advantage of their democratic rights to violate benefits of the state, organizations and citizens.

Last October, Nguyen Viet Tien, who had served in prison for 18 months, was picked out, put on trial again. And this time, miraculously or rather ridiculously, he was found not guilty and was released immediately.

In May 2008, he was also reinstated to the Communist Party this month.

Also, in May, the two reporters were arrested. The arrests had sent a chill through the Vietnamese media, which initially protested but, following stern warnings from the authorities, fell silent after two days.

Church victimized and scapegoated.

The PMU18 has shaken up the Communist Party at an intensity scale so great that more and more members of Politburo have opted to use violence to repress any protests including peaceful protests of Hanoi Catholics. By attacking viciously the Catholic Church, the Party wanted to send a clear messages to Vietnamese people: They would not be tolerant for any one who dared to challenge their rule.

The PMU18 has also involved a great numbers of reporters who had composed thousands of reports. Just two months ago, the Ministry of Information and Communication withdrew the press credentials of four journalists, while many others have been summoned for interrogations. Some of them out of the wish to get out of the problem, have participated in a competition of attacking the Church and Catholics, who are second-class citizens in the country and have no ways to defend themselves. "The more brutally they defame Catholic clergy and faithful, the more they can show their faithfulness to the Party, the more they feel safe," said Sr. Marie Nguyen from Saigon.