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Vietnam journalist sentenced to 4 years in jail for graft probe

HANOI -- A Vietnamese journalist who bribed a police officer as part of an undercover investigation into corruption was sentenced to four years in prison on Friday, while the officer who accepted the money got a five-year sentence, state-controlled media reported.

Relatives and colleagues of Hoang Khuong stood up and cheered after he made a statement to the court proclaiming his innocence, according to a report by his paper, Tuoi Tre. The reaction appeared to be a rare, albeit modest, show of public defiance toward the state and its Communist rulers, who critics say are launching a renewed crackdown on the media.

The United States, which is seeking closer ties with Vietnam but has pledged to press the government on human rights issues, issued a statement saying it was concerned that Khuoung's sentence “may reflect political considerations and not just his alleged act of bribery.”

Christopher Hodges, a spokesman for the American Embassy in Hanoi, said the U.S. also was concerned by the number of journalists and bloggers being held by the government and the “chilling effect on the media environment.”

Khuong, who has been in jail since February, gave a police officer a bribe of US$710 in June last year in order to get an impounded motorbike returned.

The 37-year-old paid the bribe as part of reporting on police corruption and later wrote two articles about it that appeared in Tuoi Tre, triggering public anger at the police. Judges at the two-day trial in southern Ho Chi Minh city sentenced him to four years in jail, and the officer who took the money to five, according to a report in Tuoi Tre. Four other people were also sentenced to prison terms in connection with the case, including Khuong's brother-in-law.

In a speech before his sentence was handed down, Khuong said he “had honest motives in detecting and fighting corruption in line with party and state policies,” and that while he may have committed a journalistic error he had done nothing criminal.

Representatives of Tuoi Tre were not permitted to give evidence at the trial. The paper's editors declined comment.

All media in Vietnam is tightly controlled, but free speech activists say enforcement is getting tougher by a government that fears that hard-hitting journalism and social media are eroding its grip over the people. There are currently at least five journalists and 19 bloggers being held on various charges in Vietnam, according to the international watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

Editors and journalists in Vietnam do not have to submit everything they print or broadcast to state censors, but are well aware of which topics they are to avoid. In 2008, a journalist for Thanh Nien newspaper was sentenced to two years in prison for his coverage of a high-profile corruption case at the transport ministry.

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