A jury Monday awarded Nguoi Viet Daily News $3 million in damages in a defamation lawsuit against a rival newspaper, a striking win for the Vietnamese newspaper in an ethnic media landscape where rumors and red-baiting often make their way into print.
The 12-person jury announced their unanimous verdict Monday morning at a trial presided over by OC Superior Court Judge Frederick P. Horn.
Nguoi Viet filed the suit against the weekly newspaper Saigon Nho in Sept. 2012 over an article, published that July, which falsely stated that the newspaper has ties to the Vietnamese Communist regime.
The jury will return Tuesday morning to decide whether Saigon Nho should pay further punitive damages to Nguoi Viet.
The article stated Vinh Hoang, Nguoi Viet’s Director of Marketing, was “mentally defective and known to have many scandalous affairs” and is unqualified for her position, according to court documents filed by Nguoi Viet.
It also said Dat Huy Phan, the paper’s CEO, was an agent for the Vietnam’s Communist government and claimed the communist government was the true owner of the newspaper.
Nguoi Viet successfully argued that Hoang Duoc Thao, the sole owner of Saigon Nho who wrote the column under the name Dao Nuong, printed statements she knew to be untrue.
Those kinds of false accusations are common political cannon fodder in Orange County’s Vietnamese American community.
Accusing someone of having communist sympathies can be an effective discrediting tactic, as many of the traumas and wounds of the Vietnam War still have a strong emotional impact.
“Assertions that one is professionally unqualified, unchaste, or in any way associated with the communist government of Viet Nam are known to evoke feelings of hatred, contempt, and ridicule,” Nguoi Viet argued in its statement to the court, “causing the victim to be shunned, avoided and injured in his or her profession, as well as subjected to threats of great bodily harm.”
Named for the iconic “Little Saigon” district where it was founded, Saigon Nho caters its content to a wide national audience and is sold in Vietnamese communities around the country.
Thao continued to defend her columns during the trial, and said that her paper keeps “the voice of the Vietnamese anti-communist community alive.”
“For many people, the war has not ended,” Thao said after the trial.
“My column is not to defame them. It raised legitimate questions [about Nguoi Viet]. I’m sorry the jurors didn’t have a chance to see the other side,” she added.
Hao-Nhien Vu, a former managing editor at Nguoi Viet and the author of Bolsavik.com, a blog on Orange County Vietnamese politics, said Saigon Nho is a political authority for many Vietnamese.
“There were places where [Thao] was the only game in town. Even in large US cities — there was a time when she was the only Vietnamese language media in Philadelphia. So whatever she wrote, people believed,” Vu said.
Nguoi Viet Daily News, meanwhile, is still the oldest and largest Vietnamese language newspaper in the US, with a circulation of 18,000.
What is Saigon Nho Worth?
Thao will appear before the court again on Tuesday, when the jury will decide if additional punitive damages should be awarded to Nguoi Viet.
In the second portion of the trial Monday, Hoyt E. Hart, the attorney representing Nguoi Viet, questioned Thao about her company’s assets and worth.
Those assets include a warehouse building, purchased in 2005 for $1.65 million and refinanced in 2008 at $2.1 million, and two printing presses worth about $860,000.
Testifying before the court, Thao said Saigon Nho last turned a profit in 2006 and has been losing money since.
“In the worst year, we lost about half a million. In the best year, we lost about two hundred thousand,” Thao said.
Thao said she has been selling off assets to make up for those losses and is focused on keeping her employees, who number more than 50, employed.
Phan, who has been Nguoi Viet’s CEO since 2008, estimated Saigon Nho’s value at $10 million, based on its real estate holdings, printing presses, ad revenue and print sales.
A History of Violence
Thao’s column is not the first time Nguoi Viet has faced controversy over alleged associations with Vietnamese communists.
In 2008, the paper published a photo of an art installation depicting a foot spa painted with the colors of the flag of the former South Vietnam, which was deemed by many as offensive and sparked protests in front of the newspaper’s headquarters that lasted for more than two months.
The same protestors also said they found pictures of the paper’s founding editor, Yen Do, with communist officials.
Nguoi Viet denied the accusations, obtained a temporary court injunction to limit the protestors’ behavior and later sued them for defamation. The paper alleged that protestors assaulted staff, urinated on cars, shredded newspapers and harassed the publisher at the time, Anh Do.
Vietnamese American journalists have also faced threats of violence in the past. In the 1980s, five Vietnamese journalists were killed in the United States, with at least two killings linked to right-wing, anti-communist groups.
Vu, who left the newspaper business to teach math at community colleges, said many online commentators and new media know they can often get away with publishing untrue statements.
“There are a lot of small-time newspapers that get information free off the internet and they think that makes them a journalist. They just say bad things about people and don’t think about the consequences,” Vu said. “A lot of newspaper owners who are not knowledgeable, they do things that are slanderous but people don’t have the stamina to sue.”
Vu said the court’s judgment should act as a warning for media outlets.
“Freedom of press comes with a price – if you abuse your freedom, you’d better watch out,” he said.