Assistant Secretary of State David Kramer, visiting Hanoi for the annual U.S.-Vietnam human rights dialogue, said Friday that he had raised the two reporters' arrests with his Vietnamese counterparts.
"We stressed that journalists need to be able to report and write or broadcast without concern for their safety, and without concern for being arrested every time they may report on a sensitive matter," he said.
Reporters Nguyen Van Hai and Nguyen Viet Chien had aggressively covered the so-called PMU-18 corruption scandal in the Transportation Ministry in 2006. A deputy minister arrested in that case was acquitted in late March, and on May 13, Hai and Chien were arrested.
Many Vietnamese worry that the arrests are payback for Hai and Chien's reporting, and will have a chilling effect on Vietnam's increasingly open press.
The human rights dialogue this week also addressed issues like the rule of law, religious freedom and freedom of expression. Kramer said the U.S. was pleased with Vietnamese progress in several areas.
"I think in particular in the area of religious freedom we have seen progress," he said.
At the talks, the Vietnamese countered U.S. concerns by raising their own concerns with economic and social rights in the U.S., such as the one in seven Americans who lack health insurance.
Vietnamese reporters at Friday's news conference asked why the U.S. delegation had not met with Vietnamese disabled by exposure to Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant the U.S. used during the Vietnam War.
Ambassador Michael Michalak said the U.S. had a different approach to that issue.
"We are already spending $43 million on people with disabilities, regardless of cause, and we have now a program where we have about $3 million, which is going to help for health and remediation efforts," he said.
The $3 million allocated by the U.S. for Agent Orange remediation has yet to be spent.