Vietnam: ‘free trade’ advances; free speech retreats

The European Council announced June 19 that it has approved the European Union-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) and the EU-Vietnam Investment Protection Agreement (EVIPA), both to be formally signed this week in Hanoi. EVFTA and EVIPA are hailed as the most ambitious agreements concluded between the EU and a developing country. Under EVFTA, upwards of 99% of tariffs on goods from both sides will be lifted. (Asia News Network, June 26) The deals were approved just two weeks after a Vietnamese environmental activist was sentenced to six years in prison for “anti-state” Facebook posts. Nguyen Ngoc Anh, a shrimp farming engineer, is accused of writing posts that urged people to take part in peaceful protests in June over corporate pollution. The posts especially noted the Formosa Plastics disaster in 2016, in which a Taiwanese-owned steel plant dumped toxic waste into the ocean off the coast of central Vietnam, killing millions of fish. Vietnam’s government has accused Facebook of violating a draconian new cybersecurity law that came into effect in January by allowing the posts. (The Guardian, June 7)

Photo of Nguyen Ngoc Anh via Human Rights Watch. Sign reads: “Fish Need Clean Water, People Need Transparency.”

  1. Vietnam journalists jailed for ‘anti-state propaganda’

    A court in Vietnam on Jan. 5 sentenced three freelance journalists known for their criticism of the government to between 11 and 15 years in prison.

    The three, Pham Chi Dung, Nguyen Tuong Thuy and Le Huu Minh Tuan are prominent members of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam (IJAVN). Dung is IJAVN’s founding president, while Thuy is the vice president and Tuan is an editor. They were convicted of anti-state propaganda under article 117 of the penal code, which punishes “making, storing, spreading information, materials, items for the purpose of opposing the State of Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” This is a charge that is often used to silence government critics—despite the fact that it contradicts article 25 of Vietnam’s constitution, which protects press freedom. Dung was jailed for 15 years and Thuy and Tuan for 11 years each.

    International rights groups unequivocally condemned the sentencing. Human Rights Watch said in a statement, “Democracy dies without freedom of expression and the press, and the work of independent journalists like these three who dare expose malfeasance and demand reforms to end abuse of power.”

    Despite sweeping economic reforms, Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party retains tight media censorship and tolerates little criticism. A recent decree, signed in October by Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, punishes with a fine and suspension for sharing information that authorities deem harmful but not serious enough for a criminal penalty. Authorities have continued to harass, arrest and imprison bloggers and activists based on “national security” charges. Vietnam has a poor record for free media, ranking 175 out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders. (Jurist)

  2. Vietnam journalists convicted for ties to free speech group

    The Vietnam People’s Court of Thoi Lai district has sentenced five journalists to prison for violating Article 331 of the country’s penal code. The journalists are affiliated with the popular Bao Sach (Clean Journalism) Facebook group, and their sentences range from four and a half to two years.

    The decision was reported Oct. 28 by VietnamPlus, an affiliate of the state-run news outlet Vietnam News Agency (VNA). The journalists were convicted under the charges of “abusing the rights to freedom and democracy to violate the interests of the State.”

    VNA reports that the defendants pled guilty to the charges. Stating that:

    The articles and video clips posted by the group used unverified, untrue, and one-sided information that intentionally misled public opinions, causing misunderstanding and creating conditions for negative comments, thus inciting people to oppose guidelines of the Party, and policies and laws of the State.

    The US State Department condemned the court’s decision, saying that the conviction is “the latest in a troubling trend of detentions and convictions of Vietnamese journalists and citizens exercising their rights to freedom of speech.” 

    Vietnam ranks 175 out of 180 on the 2021 World Press Freedom Index. As part of their sentencing, the five defendants will not be allowed to practice journalism for three years following their release. (Jurist)

  3. Environmentalists imprisoned in Vietnam

    The US State Department on June 19 shared its “deep concern” over the two-year prison sentence of Vietnamese activist Nguyễn Thúy Hạnh (also rendered Nguy Thi Khanh). Nguyễn, founder of the Green Innovation & Development Centre and Vietnam’s first recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, was detained and arrested on two occasions in 2021 on charges of propaganda against the state.

    Last week the Hanoi People’s Court sentenced Nguyễn to two years imprisonment on charges of tax evasion. Nguyễn’s sentence came after the imprisonment of three other activists, Dang Dinh Bach, Bach Hung Duong and Mai Phan Loi, who raised dissent over the government’s coal use policies. (Jurist)

  4. Another Vietnam journalist jailed for ‘anti-state propaganda’

    Vietnamese journalist and activist Nguyen Lan Thang this week goes to trial on charges of “conducting anti-state propaganda,” after being arrested in July 2022 for his reporting on protests and human rights violations. Should he be found guilty, Nguyen faces up to 12 years in prison.

    Nguyen, who contributed to US government-funded Radio Free Asia as well as his own personal YouTube and Facebook pages, was charged in relation to 12 “anti-state” videos Nguyen had posted on his social media accounts. Nguyen also had a long history of peaceful activism, protesting against the expansion of Chinese influence, land confiscation, and the erosion of civil liberties in Vietnam. Vietnamese authorities have previously subjected Nguyen to arbitrary detentions, travel bans and harassment prior to this incident.

    Nguyen’s trial will be held in a closed-court session, with only his wife and lawyer able to attend. Authorities only permitted Nguyen to meet with his lawyer on Feb. 16, over seven months after his initial detention. (Jurist)

  5. Another Vietnam journalist jailed for ‘anti-state propaganda’

    Vietnamese media on May 12 reported that the People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City sentenced political activist Tran Van Bang to eight years in prison and three years of probation for “spreading anti-government propaganda.” The sentence came just hours after Human Rights Watch called upon Vietnamese authorities to drop all charges against Tran Van Bang.

    Tran Van Bang allegedly used three Facebook accounts to publish 39 articles opposing the Vietnamese government, including calling for a boycott of the election of Vietnamese National Assembly deputies. Ho Chi Minh City police arrested Tran Van Bang on March 1, 2022, and charged him under article 117 of the Criminal Code. (Jurist)

  6. Another environmentalist imprisoned in Vietnam

    The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) stated June 2 that it is “deeply troubled” by the detention of environmentalist and human rights defender Hoang Thi Minh Hong in Ho Chi Minh City. Hoang is known for her activities in the fight against climate change, including bringing the Earth Hour initiative to Vietnam.

    Hoang is the fifth prominent environmental or human rights activist arrested in Vietnam for alleged tax evasion in the last two years. Dang Dinh Bach, arrested last year on the same charge, is currently serving a five-year prison term. (Jurist, RFA)

  7. Environmentalist sentenced to three years in Vietnam

    A Vietnamese climate activist has been sentenced to three years in prison on tax evasion charges. Rights advocates say Hoang Thi Minh Hong is the fifth climate activist to be jailed in as many years. At least two remain in prison. When US President Joe Biden visited the country last month, activists were dismayed that the US president didn’t bring up the plight of climate defenders, despite their calls for him to do so. (TNH)