State-Owned Media Features Police Brutality With Neutral Headline, Sparks Debate

Quynh-Vi Tran
Quynh-Vi Tran

Yesterday evening, January 29, 2019, Facebookers in Vietnam were circulating a video clip showing a gentleman lying on the ground while another, older man in police uniform was stomping on him, hitting him on the face, head and chest area.

By the afternoon of January 30, 30219, the story got featured on Tuoi Tre online – one of the largest newspapers in Vietnam. It was one of the rarer times where one could find stories of police’s misconducts featured quickly on state-owned news right after making waves on social media.

While Tuoi Tre was able to confirm the story and interviewed a supervisor of the police officers involved in the incident, many netizens became very critical of its headline which states: “Temporary Suspension of Deputy Ward Police Officer Using Feet to ‘Take Action’ on Witness.”

The criticisms targeted the headline for de-escalating an incident of police brutality into something a lot less severe by using vague and ambiguous language like “take action.”

The term “take action” was actually used by the Head of Tuy Hoa Police Department, Nguyen Van Dung, in his interview with Tuoi Tre regarding the incident.

Some freelance journalists believed that Tuoi Tre practiced too much self-censorship and that in this situation, they could have used the word “stomp” and would not face any disciplinary action from the Central Committee of Propaganda. Later in the day, another online newspaper, Phap Luat of Ho Chi Minh City also published the same story and used the word “stomp” in the headline.

Tuoi Tre was slammed with an order to pay a total fine of VND220 million (close to USD10,000) in July 2018 along with a 90 days suspension.

Back then, the government issued such order after finding that Tuoi Tre had reported news that was “untrue” and causing “severe impacts” when it published an inaccurate story about the late President Tran Dai Quang’s comment on the Law on Demonstration and failed to remove a “nationally divisive” comment left by a reader on another article.

However, with this story, some readers did come to the defense of Tuoi Tre, stating that it was a clever way of playing with words to get the people’s attention. Also, it should be okay for Tuoi Tre to quote a word used by a person they have interviewed.

To these people, what more important was the fact that Tuoi Tre dared to swiftly report the incident at length, letting the victim provided a detailed description of the events.

The victim in the incident was Le Huu Quoc, a resident of Phu Thanh Ward, Tuy Hoa City, Phu Yen Province. Quoc was a witness in an altercation between two other men.

According to Quoc, he and another person were trying to break up the fight of two others, and the local police have asked all of them to come to the station.

At the police station of the local ward, Quoc was physically assaulted – as seen in the video clip – by the deputy chief Huynh Minh Le.

Quoc told Tuoi Tre that when he was at the police station, officer Le started yelling at him, strangled his neck, pushed him to the ground and used his feet to stomp on Quoc. Another officer came and stopped Le.

After Quoc came home from the station, the police officers – who were fully armed – also arrived at his house later that night, asking him to go back and provide more statement. Quoc refused because he was scared from the treatment he received earlier.

Quoc said: “I was only a witness, but they had to call a fully armed police force to come and get me like a criminal, causing damage to my reputation. Further, I already came to the station earlier and got beaten up by the deputy chief so I would not go again.”

Confirming with Tuoi Tre, the Head of Tuy Hoa City Police Department, Nguyen Van Dung, acknowledged the incident and informed the public that the involved officer had been put on leave.

Vietnam faced increasing public complaints regarding police brutality in recent years. After its first review under UN’s Convention Against Torture in 2018, the government is due to elucidate about five individual cases of death while in police custody by December 7, 2019.

The debate about Tuoi Tre’s decision to publish the story and its use of certain language for its headline could be continued in the days to come regarding the practice of state’s censorship and self-censorship.

In the meanwhile, the fact that the story of Le Huu Quoc quickly made the headlines shows the inconvenient truth about police brutality in Vietnam: it continues to happen around the country at an alarming rate, causing detrimental effects on the people and society as a whole.

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Quynh-Vi Tran

Quynh-Vi was a litigation lawyer in California before becoming a democracy advocate and journalist in 2015. She is also a strong advocate for abolishing the death penalty.