In a country where nationalist fervour is essential for the regime’s survival and the government’s failings must not be mentioned, citizen-journalists who raise these issues are regarded as enemies of the nation.
In the past two weeks alone, five people have been arrested on charges of “attempting to overthrow the government” or “anti state activities” under article 79 of the penal code. All are facing the possibility of a death sentence because of what they posted.
They include four former prisoners of conscience – bloggers Pham Van Troi and Nguyen Trung Ton, journalist Truong Minh Duc and human rights lawyer Nguyen Bac Truyen – who were arrested on 30 July.
They are accused of being in contact with Nguyen Van Dai, a fellow member of the Brotherhood of Democracy, an association of former prisoners of conscience. Dai was himself arrested in December 2015 on a charge of “propaganda against the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” under article 88 of the penal code.
Blogger Le Dinh Luong was meanwhile arrested by plainclothes police in the central province of Nghe An on 24 July, as he was about to visit the wife of Nguyen Van Oai, a human rights defender and citizen journalist who has been detained since 19 January.
Luong is from one of the regions affected by a toxic spill from a Taiwanese-owned steel plant in April 2016 and often wrote about it on Facebook. A war veteran, he also wrote about China’s 1979 offensive against Vietnam.
“We firmly condemn the arrests and sham trials of the past few weeks,” RSF said. “Thanks to new technology, citizen-journalists in Vietnam are able to able to write about developments and describe the country’s reality in a lively manner very different from the state propaganda."
“These arbitrary arrests call for an effective reaction from the international community, which must press the Vietnamese authorities to release the detainees and stop harassing citizen-journalists.”
New hope for autocrats
Vietnam is cracking down harder on freedom of information for several reasons, sources have told RSF. Upheavals in the international arena resulting from the election of new leaders, including Donald Trump in the United States, have given the Vietnamese government more room for manoeuvre.
While the previous US administration respected Vietnam’s sovereignty by limiting its interventions in its domestic affairs, it was nonetheless a leading advocate of human rights and sought to promote them.
Trump’s election has ended this and, according to Jonathan London, a leading academic specialist in Vietnam, it has played a significant role in the sudden crackdown. Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement has without a doubt also removed a reason for Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party to improve respect for human rights.
The divided Party’s most conservative sectors are trying to use the situation to get the upper hand by tightening their grip on the news and information circulating within the country. Anyone posting articles that reflect badly on the government is punished severely, especially at a time of renewed tension between Vietnam and China over the exploitation of oil and gas reserves in the South China Sea.
Bloggers who refer to China’s domination of the region are often harassed, attacked or prosecuted, as was the case with Pham Minh Hoang, a dissident who was recently expelled.
Bloggers also often refer to the government’s mishandling of the environmental disaster caused by the toxic spill from the Taiwanese-owned Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation plant in Ha Tinh province in April 2016.
More than a year has elapsed since the disaster and the Party had expected the criticism to have died down. But, in their fight for democracy and the freedom to inform, citizen-journalists have refused to drop the issue. The government now clearly wants to shut them up once and for all.
Dissident bloggers who anger the Party are often beaten up. The blogger Tran Thi Nga was among those who were the victims of physical violence before she was arrested and then sentenced on 25 July to nine years in prison on a charge of “anti- state propaganda.”
The mother of Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, a blogger sentenced to ten years in prison in late June, reports that Quynh’s health is worsening in detention and that the prison authorities refuse to give her the medicine that her family is sending.
Nga is meanwhile being subjected to “disciplinary measures” in prison, which probably include isolation in the most appalling conditions, a cruel technique often used in an attempt to purge dissidents of their ideals.
Vietnam is ranked 175th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.