Conditions for the media in Vietnam have rarely been so bad, according to media analysts, with the country jailed more than a dozen journalists in the past 12 months and courts handing down unusually long sentences.
The increase in arrests came as Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party held its 13th Party Congress and voted for the next five-year term in the National Assembly in 2021.
International rights groups believe Hanoi has stepped up efforts to suppress dissenting or opposition voices during the election and at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has distracted the West from scrutiny of Vietnam’s actions.
“Vietnam has ramped up its rights violations at all levels, attacking community activists, human rights defenders and political dissidents in a systematic way that points to Hanoi’s plan to eliminate all opposition to its regime,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.
Data from the media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) shows an increase in the number of journalists behind bars, with 43 detained.
“The current press freedom situation in Vietnam has rarely been so bad,” said Daniel Bastard, head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific office. “Vietnam is the third largest prison in the world for journalists, just after autocratic regimes like Xi [Jinping]is China and Myanmar ruled by the junta.
The decline in media rights last year began with the trial of members of the Association of Independent Journalists of Vietnam, including founder and chairman Pham Chi Dung in January, and ended with the conviction of prominent journalists and activists in December.
Those cases included laureate Pham Doan Trang and Le Trong Hung, a journalist who announced his intention to run as an independent candidate in the National Assembly elections.
The trend of arrests spilled over into the new year, with a Hanoi court on Tuesday sentencing Mai Phan Loi, a former journalist and founder of a non-profit organization, to 48 months in prison for tax evasion.
According to RSF, the founder of the Association of Independent Journalists of Vietnam, Dung, was sentenced to one of the longest prison terms for a journalist in the world, with a 15-year prison term for propaganda against the journalist. ‘State.
Trang, who is internationally recognized for her fight for democracy and human rights in Vietnam, was also sentenced to a heavy sentence. A court ordered his detention for nine years, more than the sentence prosecutors requested.
In other cases, bloggers and social media users who posted material critical of the Communist Party have been arrested or prosecuted on charges such as “propaganda against the state” and “abuse of democratic freedom”.
Activists and the international community view the convictions as a warning to dissidents.
“Human rights in Vietnam deteriorated in 2021, as the Communist Party used false articles from the 2015 Criminal Code, including ‘propaganda against the state’ and ‘abuse of democratic freedoms’ , to suppress dissidents and freedom of expression, ”Vu Quoc said. Ngu, director of Defend the Defenders in Vietnam.
The organization documents rights violations in Vietnam and offers training in cybersecurity and journalism.
Hanoi dismissed criticism of its human rights record.
After the conviction in November of five journalists from Bao Sach, or The Clean Newspaper, Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Thi Thu Hang said Vietnam’s consistent policy is to “respect, protect and promote human rights. human rights, including freedom of speech and freedom of the press. ”
Vietnamese civil organizations have called on President Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Speaker of the National Assembly Vuong Dinh Hue to call on Hanoi to abolish three of the country’s laws, including those on propaganda and the abuse of democratic freedoms.
Rights groups have described the laws as “so opaque and ill-defined that they can easily be, and have even been, abused by law enforcement to prevent citizens from not only exercising their constitutional rights. but also those defined by the [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights]. “
The wife of one of the journalists detained for propaganda last year told VOA she has called on the United States, the European Union and other countries to intervene in her husband’s case .
Do Le Na, whose husband Hung was arrested in March, said the journalist turned political candidate “faces a very heavy and unfair prison sentence.”
“I cannot appeal this injustice to any agency in the country because no one is standing up to protect my rights. I must seek help from human rights organizations, foreign embassies and governments of advanced countries who are interested in human rights, ”Na said.
She denied the charges against her husband and added that Hung is in poor health.
“This is a completely absurd accusation,” she said.
Ngu, winner of the Franco-German prize for human rights and the rule of law in 2019, believes that the pandemic is partly responsible for the intensification of the repression.
“When the world focuses on controlling the pandemic, Western countries are less interested in the human rights situation in Vietnam and therefore the Vietnamese communist government has a free hand to suppress it,” Ngu said, who was previously detained for participating in an anti-China protest. in Hanoi in 2011.
Robertson, of Human Rights Watch, shared a similar view, telling VOA: “Vietnam has very clearly taken advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting international community distraction, to try to put an end to his opponents. ”
The United States and Europe condemned the sentencing of journalists and activists, including Trang.
Vice President Kamala Harris raised human rights issues with Vietnamese leaders during a visit in August to strengthen strategic ties with the country.
At a press conference, Harris said she discussed the release of political dissidents but did not disclose further details, saying only that the United States must “continue speaking out, if necessary, on human rights issues “.
Robertson believes the United States and its allies must do more to stop Vietnam’s “systematic rights violations”.
“The security situation in the South China Sea and Vietnam’s new role as a country to which manufacturing and supply chains flee from China have marginalized human rights issues,” said Robertson. “It must stop. ”
President Joe Biden’s administration has pledged to put democracy and human rights at the center of US foreign policy. Secretary Antony Blinken said “the administration will stand up to human rights violations wherever they occur, whether the perpetrators are adversaries or partners”.
This story has its origins in the Vietnamese service of VOA.