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Panpa Bulletin : February 2006
22 | PANPA BULLETIN February 2006 PUBLISHING MATTERS PETER ISAACSON In late 2005, a hysterical me- dia trawled the emotions of readers, listeners and viewers around the case of convicted drug courier Nguyen Tuong Van. Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, all the branches of Christianity and some lawyers banded with newspapers, television, radio and politicians in appealing to the Singapore government to stop the judicial murder, by hanging, of Nguyen. The religious prayed, the politicians fulminated, the law- yers spoke, the media pictured, wrote and editorialised about the anguish of the young man's family at his impending barbaric execu- tion. Few in the media or parliament tried to use their influence to save others from a similar death by entreating the Singapore govern- ment to discard the death pen- alty completely, or by trenchantly condemning the crime of drug dealing, which Nguyen had com- mitted. Exceptions to the agents of mercy were the comments of Wil- son Tuckey - old Iron-bar him- self - the West Australian maver- ick Member of Parliament with whose sentiments I seldom agree, but did this time. Tuckey con- demned the crime for its intent to add further to the drug-taking of Australians and emphasised his opinion that the death sen- tence, lawful in Singapore, should be carried out. Outspoken radio commentator Derryn Hinch iden- tified the Nguyens as 'a hoodlum family' and Van's brother Khoda (for whom the sale of the heroin allegedly was to benefit), as 'a vi- cious thug and a drug dealer.' I do not recall these allegations being refuted. Throughout the strong cam- paign waged by newspapers to have the death sentence revoked, one salient fact was ignored. It was that if the alleged purpose of the drug run was to pay off a debt of $20,000 owed by his brother Khoda, why was Nguyen trying to smuggle 396 grams of heroin, enough for 25,000 doses, with a street value of $1 million? Who was to get the other $880,000? This was never answered by the convicted man, by his lawyers, by his supporters or by his fam- ily. Nor, to my recollection, was it asked by the media. Some distinguished columnists used their influence in attempting to excuse the crime and claimed the sentence was unfair because Nguyen was in transit, that there were 'special circumstances' with- out explaining what those 'special circumstances' were. Others con- cluded that the refusal of the Sin- gapore government to commute the death sentence was, as Mark Baker wrote, 'a stinging rebuff to Howard personally and Australia as a whole;' that the refusal 'makes a mockery of the supposedly close political, defence and business friendship between Singapore and Australia.' What ridiculous waffle. Other writers suggested 'that the sentence was out of pro- portion to the crime,' but failed to explain the reasons for such a conclusion. Paul Kelly pointed out the inconsistency of the Aus- tralian governments' declared aversion to the principal of death sentencing by reminding readers that death sentences for the Bali bombers won the tacit approval of the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister; that John Howard had said of the death penalty on Am- rozi, 'the law of that country must prevail.' The media hyperbole was not totally endorsed by the public.This was reflected in reader's letters. 'I am absolutely disgusted by this hysterical worshipping of Nguyen. One minutes silence, praised by lawyers and by politicians at the fu- neral of a convicted drug criminal.' 'If the Australian government were principled in its opposi- tion, it would object to every in- stance of capital punishment.' 'My initial sympathy for Nguyen faded because of the tendency of the press to glo- rify him as a saint or martyr.' 'Wishing to pay off his brother's debt was not a valid reason for Nguyen to become a drug traf- ficker. He could have found a job to raise the money honestly.' "Did Nguyen ever exhibit com- passion for those who would have ended up dead or hopelessly ad- dicted to his loot.' At the height of the 'don't hang Van' campaign, a Roy Morgan Survey disclosed that 27 per cent of Australian supported the death penalty for murder, and where the death penalty is law, 57 per cent said it should be carried out. The press publicised but did not give prominence to the state- ment of Joseph Koh, Singapore High Commissioner in Australia; 'Nguyen knew what he was doing and the penalty if he was caught. Had he succeeded he would have made a lot of money.' In a rebuke to the Australian media, the Straits Times suggest- ed that 'Australians should look at the crime and not only at the pun- ishment.' I endorse this comment and suggest Australian newspa- pers erred in their enthusiastic making of heroes and martyrs out of a dysfunctional family and its reprobate scions. Publisher and PANPA life member Was the media's influence wasted in covering of the Nguyen Tuong Van story. Media wallow in sentiment, ignore reality Few exceptions to the agents of mercy. Senator Andrew Bartlett signs the condolence book regarding Nguyen Tuong Van's execution in Singapore. Newspix: Mark Graham