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Stores paying price of free-press backlash

September 02, 2007|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer

Three weekly events this summer have played a big role in the fortunes of the mom-and-pop businesses struggling to survive on Garden Grove's historic Main Street.

Friday night's car show and Sunday's farmers market attract potential customers. But the regular Saturday protest by anti-Communists drives them away.

"When they're out there, you can't hardly even walk," said real estate broker Scott Weimer, who owns a small office building on Main Street. "Most of the merchants here are fed up with it."

The target of the demonstrations is Viet Weekly, one of Weimer's tenants. When it hit the streets four years ago, Viet Weekly stood out amid Little Saigon's competitive and politically conservative media market. The weekly's alternative-newspaper attitude and its emphasis on local news and diverse opinions (plus a bit of cheesecake) ruffled feathers in a community where freedom of expression has long exacted a price.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, September 06, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Newspaper protests: An article in Sunday's California section about ongoing demonstrations by anti-Communist activists against a weekly newspaper said protest organizer Long Kim Pham fled Vietnam as a teenager. He left the country in 1975 when he was 25.

"There is a segment of the Vietnamese American community that has very little tolerance for freedom of the press," said Jeffrey Brody, a professor of communications at Cal State Fullerton who once covered Little Saigon as a reporter for the Orange County Register. "In covering the homeland, [local Vietnamese media] exhibit a serious amount of self-censorship."

And the threat is real, Brody said, noting that the slayings of five Vietnamese American journalists have been linked to anti-Communist extremists, including the 1987 arson murder of a Little Saigon magazine publisher.

On July 21, about 500 to 1,000 demonstrators waving signs and bellowing through loudspeakers descended on Viet Weekly's office, accusing it of publishing articles supporting Vietnam's Communist government. They also lashed out at an opinion piece critical of U.S. foreign policy that had been written by a former Viet Cong soldier who said the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks "were an appropriate price for America to pay for the things it did to the world."

"We came to this country with empty hands, and this country welcomed us with open arms. We owe this country a big favor," said Long Kim Pham, a protest organizer who fled Vietnam as a teenager. "We feel that if we don't speak up, we are not being responsible as a community."

Public demonstrations against perceived Communists or entrepreneurs doing business in Vietnam are as common in Little Saigon as steaming bowls of pho. But the ongoing protests against Viet Weekly are exceptional in that they have drawn into the fray non-Vietnamese business owners along this tranquil slice of small-town America who have rallied to the newspaper's defense.

Peter Katz can't read or speak Vietnamese, but he knows a showdown between free speech and free assembly when he sees it.

"The first time they protested, it was a novelty. The second time, it got old. The third time, people started complaining," said Katz, 60, a Vietnam War veteran who runs the Main Street Postal Center. "They're trying to drive them out of business. . . . These people are using the same tactics as the Communists in Vietnam do to stifle the free press. That really sticks in my craw."

Weimer, Viet Weekly's landlord, said he has gotten several calls from people asking if he was going to evict the Communists.

"When I tell them, 'No,' they say, 'Why not?' " Weimer said. "I tell them, 'You're in America. They can write anything they want.' . . . They're wonderful tenants, hard-working, honest, stand-up, intelligent people. If they're Communists, they're the hardest-working Communists I've ever known."

The confrontation has walloped Viet Weekly's bottom line. Advertising revenue is down 50% and circulation has dropped to 7,000 from 10,000. Employees are forgoing salary. Publisher Le Vu says local businesses have been pressured to stop selling the newspaper -- although it's still widely available if you ask. It's under the counter and out of view, like a skin magazine in the 1950s.

"Too many people harassed them," said Vu, 43, who fled Vietnam with his family in 1979. He graduated from college with an engineering degree and wrote software before turning to publishing.

Vu's goal is to provide a forum for open debate in Little Saigon. "My desire is to help my community, and the media is the key to harvesting the best ideas."

His view on Vietnam's government is blunt: "I hate Communism."

"We could go out of business, but I think we're winning," he said of the protests, which he believes will fade away. "If they admit defeat, they will lose the power to intimidate people in the future. The lesson will be if you stand and fight against them, they will disappear. Don't be afraid."

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