The Dangers of Being A Vietnamese Reporter
By Eliza Newlin Carney
Eliza Newlin Carney is associate editor of the National Journal.
Every time Yen Do writes about a touchy issue such as normalizing U.S. relations with Vietnam, he knows that he may have to lie low for a while.
As editor and publisher of Nguoi Viet (The Vietnamese People), a daily Vietnamese newspaper published near Los Angeles, threats are a regular part of his life. Articles on U.S.-Vietnamese relations often generate angry phone calls, letters and rumors that Do is in danger.
Two years ago, when Do published an interview with a Vietnamese official endorsing economic reforms, the reaction was so fierce that Do had to change his commuting patterns, keep an eye on his front door and use caution when opening his mail.
"For two months, I never appeared in a public place," recalls the editor, who says the threats have tapered off. But if the United States normalizes relations with Vietnam, he fears they may flare up again.
In fact, Vietnamese American reporters face a greater risk of assassination on U.S. soil than any other group of foreign reporters, according to a recent report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The committee found that of 13 journalists killed in the United States since 1976, nine were foreign-born and five of those Vietnamese.
Two of the killings were linked to right-wing anti-communist groups; all five remain unsolved. The committee faults law enforcement officials for not aggressively investigating the crimes, and mainstream reporters for letting them drift from the public eye. "I don't think the American press believes journalists are really killed for what they say," says James Goodale, a former New York Times executive who chairs the CPJ's board of directors. Among the report's findings:
Triet Le, a columnist for the magazine Tien Phong (Vanguard), was gunned down in 1990 with his wife in front of their Washington, D.C.-area home. Le's anti-communist writings had sparked emotional reactions in the Vietnamese community.
Nhan Trong Do, Tien Phong's layout editor, was found dead of gunshot wounds in his car outside his suburban Washington home in 1989.
Tap Van Pham, editor and publisher of the weekly Mai (Morning), was killed in 1987 when the magazine's Garden Grove, California, office was torched. A group calling itself the "Vietnamese Party to Exterminate the Communists and Restore the Nation" claimed responsibility.
Nguyen Dam Phong, editor of Tu Do (Freedom), a Houston newspaper, was shot to death outside his home in 1982. A hit list next to his body named other Vietnamese journalists, including Triet Le.
Lam Trong Doung, who had edited a newspaper sympathetic to the Hanoi government, was shot to death on a street in San Francisco in 1981. A group called the Anti-Communist Viets Organization claimed responsibility.
The killings have frightened other Vietnamese journalists working here, says CPJ Executive Director William Orme Jr. "These murders did not happen in isolation. There's a consistent pattern of phone calls, intimidation, different kinds of threats."
Language barriers, lack of press freedoms in Vietnam, Vietnamese distrust of U.S. police officers and media indifference have kept many problems hidden. Many Vietnamese editors and reporters are reluctant to discuss crime in their communities, and some s¨y threats are minimal. But others admit that fear of retaliation has forced them to kill or hold stories, and that past violence has created an atmosphere of anxiety.
At the Tenderloin Times, a San Francisco monthly that prints in English, Vietnamese and Cambodian, Contributing Editor Josh Brandon says threats against reporters are weighed against a number of factors, including the story's broader significance and its impact on the community. "We leave the final decision to the journalist," he says, "because it's his ass on the line."
At Nguoi Viet, Do says he advises reporters not to publicize threats against them, since that would just encourage extremists. "If we accept them as censors," he says, "we are lost forever." ###