Vietnamese reporter faces up to 20 years in jail for blackmailing official

By Pham Du   March 30, 2018 | 02:10 am PT
The reporter was threatening to expose the official's wealth following a similar case last year.

Police in the northern province of Yen Bai are pressing charges against a former journalist for blackmailing a top provincial official by threatening to expose the true extent of his villa complex, a matter that is likely to raise controversy in the corruption-plagued country.

Le Duy Phong, 33, a former senior reporter for Giao duc Vietnam (Vietnam Education) newspaper, is accused of demanding VND200 million ($8,800) in bribes from the official, an act of extortion that could send him to jail for up to 20 years.

Le Duy Phong (R) works with a policeman after being caught taking money from a businessman in Yen Bai Province in order to ingore his business operation in June 2017.

Le Duy Phong (R) works with a policeman after being caught taking money from a businessman in Yen Bai Province in June 2017.

The investigation found that Phong had sent a reporter to Yen Bai Province, five hours northwest of Hanoi, to verify the origin of some real estate owned by local officials.

In June 2017, Phong told Vu Xuan Sang, the director of Yen Bai’s Planning and Investment Department, that he was investigating him and asked to meet.

They met the next day at Sang’s office and discussed another villa scandal involving Yen Bai official Pham Sy Quy that was making headlines at the time. Media reports had raised questions over Quy’s hillside complex that included a villa, stilt houses, a pond and a garden in the province. The land it stood on had been designated as forest and agricultural land, which meant residential use was restricted. The government launched an investigation and Quy was subsequently fired from his post as head of the province’s environment and natural resources department in October.

Phong told Sang that Quy had been exposed because he “did not handle it cleverly.”

He asked Sang for VND200 million to ignore his villa and stay quiet, and the official agreed, giving him the money that day. Phong also ordered his reporter to stop looking into the villa at the same time.

But Sang then reported the transaction to Yen Bai Police.

Several days later, police tracked down Phong having lunch with a local businessman, and threatening to expose him as well. The businessman was attempting to pay him VND50 million to look away when police stepped in and caught them red-handed.

Phong lost his journalism license at the end of June last year.

He first admitted to blackmail but later said he was forced into a confession by police, who have denied any misconduct.

Local authorities have yet to open an investigation into the businessman he targeted.

In Vietnam, where people earned an average of $2,385 last year, officials’ wealth is almost always called into question.

Experts and businesspeople rank the country 107th out of 180 economies in terms of corruption, according to the Corruption Perceptions Index released by Transparency International last month.

People have been looking to the media as the main source of corruption exposure. There is no official data, but Nguyen Thien Nhan, Party chief of Ho Chi Minh City, has estimated that local media provide around 1,000 reports on corruption every year.

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