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Report Underscores Unsolved Murders of Immigrant Journalists : Crime: Panel calls for renewed efforts to investigate the cases, which included the killing of the Vietnamese founder of a Little Saigon magazine.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Garden Grove magazine editor was among 10 immigrant journalists murdered in the United States since 1981 for covering news that disturbed political factions from their native countries, according to a report by a private nonprofit group that is being released today.

Eight of the 10 killings remain unsolved. This week, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, which prepared the report, called on the FBI and local police departments to renew efforts to investigate the cases.

“The purpose of this report here is not to consider these unresolved cases closed but to underline that they remain open,” William Orme, the committee’s executive director, said at a news conference Wednesday in Washington.

Among those killed was Tap Van Pham, who started a Little Saigon publication called Mai Magazine in 1981. He was killed in a firebomb attack at his Garden Grove office more than seven years ago in an apparent political assassination after publishing controversial advertising in his Vietnamese-language entertainment magazine.

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The tragedy has never ended for Tam Pham, his 31-year-old daughter, who is now an editor at the same magazine.

“I still don’t know what really happened,” she said. “It makes me very sad.”

Tam Pham, her two sisters and mother were in Vietnam at the time of the attack. The family fled their homeland about three years ago using immigration papers prepared by her father before he died, she said. After settling in Orange County, her mother, Mai Tran, revived the entertainment magazine, which is now based in Westminster.

“We stay away from any political issues,” Tam Pham said.

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She declined to comment on the nonprofit group’s report.

For many immigrant journalists in Orange County and elsewhere in the United States, freedom of speech is not free, said Co Thien Nguyen, editor of Nguoi Viet Daily News, California’s largest Vietnamese-language newspaper.

The 10 slain immigrant journalists mentioned in the report included five Vietnamese newspaper and magazine journalists who were killed in Texas, California and Virginia, and three Haitian radio hosts who were killed in Florida for their support of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The other victims were a Chinese American reporter in Daly City, Calif., and a Cuban American publisher in New York.

Of those cases, only two have been solved--the murders in Daly City and New York. In those instances, there was a commitment of resources from law enforcement officials in the ethnic communities where the victims worked, according to the report, “Silenced: The Unsolved Murders of Immigrant Journalists in the United States.”

Speaking out against a politically motivated assassination can mean retaliation, said Garden Grove Police Investigator Al Butler, who has worked the Pham case since 1989. Many witnesses are not willing to cooperate with authorities as a result, making the cases much more difficult to crack, he said.

Another problem is the limited resources available from the FBI and the Garden Grove Police Department, Butler said.

After the attack, a task force of FBI agents and police investigators worked for about a year to solve the murder. But due to transfers and promotions, the task force was dissolved without making a lot of headway into the identification of a suspect, Butler said.

In 1989, the case was turned over to Butler, who said he now spends about two days a month interviewing witnesses and verifying new information.

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“What we need is a concentrated effort put on it,” he said. “Without a separate investigator who can pick up and go full time on this, things are going to go at a much slower pace.”

Although violence against Vietnamese journalists in Orange County has not gone away, it has waned in the past few years, Butler and area Vietnamese journalists said Wednesday.

Since President Clinton lifted the trade embargo against Vietnam in February, Nguyen said, he has noticed changes for the better. Dissent is more verbal than physical among political opponents, he said.

He pointed to Yen Do, the editor of Nguoi Viet who resigned amid criticisms for publicly saying that politics is a game in Little Saigon, and Dr. Co Pham, who received death threats after initiating a trade mission to Vietnam.

Nguyen said that years ago such actions might have provoked violence.

“It is not the best situation for the media here, but things have definitely improved,” Nguyen said. “Where there were firebombs and assassinations before, there are now protests and verbal threats.”


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