Vietnam steps up its harsh crackdown on the media

Newspaper kiosks near Nam Dinh Post Office, on Tran Phu Road, Nam Dinh City, Nam Dinh Province, Vietnam. TaiwaneseWaveVN, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Le Van Dung was on the run for almost a month when police finally caught up with him while he was hiding out at a friend’s house in his village.  He was detained for two weeks before being arrested on June 30 for alleged “anti-state propaganda,” a charge the government often uses to muzzle outspoken journalists and bloggers.

The well-known blogger is now being held under pre-trial detention, and will remain incommunicado, and will not be able to have contact with his lawyer or family members for at least four months, and possibly longer, until the investigation is completed.

Better known as Le Dung Vova, Dung founded Chan Hung Nuoc Viet TV (CHTV), a popular online TV news channel available on Facebook Live, YouTube and other social media. The station reported on human rights and social issues, some sensitive for the government.

Daniel Bastard, head of Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) Asia-Pacific Desk, issued a statement demanding the immediate release of Dung, saying his only crime was providing fellow citizens with reliable information.

“The Vietnamese authorities display their complete contempt for the rule of law by flagrantly violating article 25 of the country’s constitution, which proclaims freedom of the press,” Bastard said in a statement.

Dung’s arrest was among a few dozen arrests of journalists and bloggers the past two years as the government has stepped up its harsh crackdown against the media.

The situation took a sharp turn for the worse at the end of 2020, as Nguyen Phu Trong, 76, head of the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), stepped up the crackdown on freedom of expression in the run-up to the National Party Congress, which meets once every five years.

It’s no wonder that Vietnam is ranked 175 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2021 World Press Freedom Index. RSF said the “level of terror has risen sharply in the past two years, with many citizen-journalists being jailed or expelled in connection with their posts.”

In January, Pham Chi Dung, Nguyen Tuong Thuy and Le Huu Minh Tuan, who were all affiliated with the outlawed Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam (IJAVN), were convicted of “making, storing, spreading information, materials, items for the purpose of opposing the state.” Dung was sentenced to 15 years in prison and Thuy and Tuan 11 years each at a trial that lasted just one day. The arrests were a blow to IJAVN, the only remaining independent journalist organization in Vietnam. 

The arrests of the three were condemned by leading human rights organizations.

“The harsh sentencing of Thuy and two other independent journalists is a blatant assault on basic freedoms and flies in the face of the freedom of expression enshrined in Vietnam’s constitution,” Radio Free Asia (RFA) President Stephen Yates said in a statement.

“Even by its own deeply repressive standards, the severity of the sentences show the depths being reached by Vietnam’s censors,” said Emerlynne Gil, deputy regional director for Amnesty International.

Thuy is the third contributor to RFA to be sentenced to prison. Truong Duy Nhat, a blogger, was sentenced to 10 years in March 2020, and Nguyen Van Hoa, a videographer was given a seven-year sentence in November 2017.

A month later, three members of the Clean Newspaper (Bao Sach) group were arrested, charged with “abusing democratic freedoms.” Clean Newspaper, which was a popular Facebook page with an estimated 168,000 followers, has been taken offline.

Some 20 journalists and bloggers were arrested in 2020; most prominent was independent journalist Pham Doan Trang. Trang was arrested in the middle of the night at her apartment in Ho Chi Minh City on October 6. Photos show Trang flanked by police as she is being led down a dark street. Trang’s arrest came just hours after the completion of the 24th Annual U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue, in a blatant disregard of human rights. She was arrested on anti-state propaganda charges and is sitting in a prison in Hanoi. She remains in pre-trial detention nine months after her arrest. Trang has not yet been sentenced or allowed to see her lawyer or any family members while the investigation is going on.

Despite widespread economic reforms and a rapidly advancing society, the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) tolerates little criticism, and continues to tightly restrict the media in the country.

It does this via draconian policies to restrict freedom of the media. No independent media is allowed; the party controls all newspapers, magazines and other publications, as well as TV and radio.

Furthermore, the government decides who can become a journalist, as well as what can be published.

State media that have stepped over the line have been swiftly punished.

In 2018, Tuoi Tre Online Newspaper was shut down for three months, simply for allegedly “misquoting” the late President Tran Dai Quang, which the newspaper said had supported the drafting of a Law On Demonstrations.

The following year, Phu Nu Online received a one-month suspension for investigative reporting on the Sun Group, which had close ties to government officials. Phu Nu was forced to make a public apology.

Also important, the government does not allow independent or civilian journalists.

These restrictions mean that any journalist seeking to operate outside the official state media can only rely on social media. But cyberspace has become increasingly limited in recent years, making this an increasingly dangerous platform.

In 2018, Vietnam’s National Assembly passed a highly-controversial Cybersecurity Law. Amnesty International described the new law as “deeply repressive,” adding that it “grants the government sweeping powers to limit online freedom.”

Amnesty said further:

“This decision has potentially devastating consequences for freedom of expression in VietNam. In the country’s deeply repressive climate, the online space was a relative refuge where people could go to share ideas and opinions with less fear of censure by the authorities.

With the sweeping powers it grants the government to monitor online activity, this vote means there is now no safe place left in Vietnam for people to speak freely.”

In a report on human rights in Vietnam, Human Rights Watch summed up the state of the media in the country today:

“The Vietnamese government continues to prohibit independent or privately owned media outlets from operating. It exerts strict control over radio and TV stations and printed publications. Criminal penalties apply to those who disseminate materials deemed to oppose the government, threaten national security, or promote ‘reactionary’ ideas. Authorities block access to politically sensitive websites, frequently shut down blogs, and require internet service providers to remove content or social media accounts deemed politically unacceptable.”

Observers are not optimistic that the situation will improve any time soon.

Hardliner Nguyen Phu Trong, who has spearheaded the campaign against freedom of expression, was elected to a third-term as leader of the VCP at the 13th Party Congress in February, meaning that strict censorship and retribution will be here for the foreseeable future.

Media Arrests in Vietnam in 2021

January 5, 2021Pham Chi Dung, Nguyen Tuong Thuy and Le Huu Minh TuanThe three journalists, members of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam, were convicted of “making, storing, spreading information, materials, items for the purpose of opposing the state,” the Ministry of Public Security said.Sentenced to between 11 and 15 years after a one-day trial.
FebruaryPhan Bui Bao ThyPolice charged Thy under Article 331 with “abusing democratic freedoms.”Awaiting sentencing
MarchLe Trong Hung and Tran Quoc KhanhArrested after planning to run as independent candidates in Vietnam’s National AssemblyAwating sentencing
April 2, 2021Nguyen Hoai NamArrested for posting articles on Facebook exposing questionable practices within the Ho Chi Minh City government.Placed in detention for three months
April 9, 2021Nguyen Van Son TrungPolice arrested Trung, a member of the outlawed Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam and held him for five days of interrogation without access to a lawyer.Released.
April 20, 2021Nguyen Thanh Nha, Doan Kien Giang and Nguyen Phuoc Trung BaoThese three journalists, who were affiliated with the Clean Newspaper (Bar Sach) group, were charged with “abusing democratic freedoms” under Article 331 of the Penal Code.  The arrests follow the December detention of another member of Bao Sach, Truong Chau Huu Danh, under the same charges.Awaiting sentencing. Faces a maximum sentencing of up to three years.
April 24, 2021Tran Thi TuyetCharged with criticizing the party and advocating for democracy on social media.Sentenced to eight years in prison after a three-hour trial
June 30, 2021Le Van Dung, aka Le Dung VovaFounder and presenter of CHTV, an online TV news channel available on Facebook Live, YouTube and other social media under article of 117 of the Vietnam’s penal code, which punishes the dissemination of “information, documents, items and publications opposing the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”Being held in pre-trial detention. Faces a possible maximum prison sentence of a 20 years.
June 30, 2021Phung Thanh Tuyen, Bach Van Hien and Le Trung Thu.Accused of “abusing social media in order to erode the state’s rights,” under Article 331 of the Criminal Code.Being held in pre-trial detention.
July 2, 2021Mai Phan LoiLoi, former editor-in-chief of Phap Luat, a well-known state run magazine focusing on the law, whose journalist credentials were revoked in 2016 for political reasons. He is also the director of the Center for Media in Educating Community, and runs a channel called GTV which airs a number of popular talk shows. At the time of his arrest, Loi was administrator of a Facebook page called POV of the Press and Citizens, which had more than 120,000 followers.
Charged with tax evasion, a common charge used against people for whom the government does not have a strong case.
Sources: The Vietnamese, Project 88