Authorities in Vietnam have arrested two operators of an unauthorized short-wave radio station run by the spiritual movement Falun Gong, which is banned in China, according to a media watchdog.
The station was broadcasting into China in Chinese from a farm outside Hanoi, the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said on Wednesday.
"Beijing's reach does not stop at China's borders," said RSF spokesman Gilles Lordet.
"Reporters Without Borders has learned that the Chinese government successfully pressured the Vietnamese authorities to arrest two people, Vu Duc Trung and Le Van Thanh."
Hanoi-based businessman Pham Thanh Trung, a friend of the two men, confirmed the report.
"The family had also already received documents from the Ministry of Justice in Hanoi, saying that the two were accused of illegally sending information via the Internet," he said.
"They prepared a radio program for the Chinese mainland to talk to listeners about the truth concerning Falun Gong," he said, referring to a spiritual movement that was banned by Beijing in 1999, prompting a nationwide crackdown on its followers.
"Hanoi also accused the two of violating international communications regulations and damaging relations between Hanoi and Beijing," Pham Thanh Trung said.
He said the content of the broadcasts had steered clear of politics, and limited itself to matters of "faith."
"Those two have a responsibility to tell the truth regarding Falun Gong."
Pressure from Beijing
Hanoi-based public interest lawyer Tran Dinh Trien said a prosecution under international communications law would only lead to an administrative charge, however, not a criminal one.
"The maximum sentence requires a fine, not imprisonment and not confiscation of equipment," he said. "Using a radio to help other members of Falun Gong is something forbidden in China, but not in Vietnam yet."
He said the charges against the two men were unconstitutional, and in contravention to international human rights covenants to which Hanoi is a signatory.
Tran Dinh Trien said police claims that the broadcasts would harm diplomatic relations with China were "an illusion."
"Vietnam cannot apply the same measures that China applies regarding Falun Gong members," he said.
RSF said it was worried that the latest arrests showed that Beijing's political influence over its neighbors in Southeast Asia was growing.
Lordet called on the the Vietnamese government to give Trung and Thanh a fair trial regardless of pressure from Beijing.
The men were initially accused of operating broadcasting devices without a permit, an administrative charge, RSF said.
But the charges were later upgraded to criminal charges, suggesting that the content of their broadcasts would be part of the trial, the group said.
Trung and Thanh would be tried on Friday, RSF said.
Both members of the Falun Gong movement, Trung and Thanh are accused of beginning broadcasts via shortwave to China on April 2, 2009.
"The programs they broadcast were those of the Sound of Hope Radio Network, an overseas Chinese radio station linked to the Falun Gong,"
Operating out of a farm in Thach Loi township, east of Hanoi, the two men broadcast the network's programming via short-wave over a distance of more than 800 kilometers (nearly 500 miles), the group said.
The arrests come after the detention in Indonesia of the manager of a Falun Gong radio station on March 23.
The manager of Radio Era Baru now faces a possible six-year jail term "as a result of Chinese pressure," RSF said.
China is making new economic inroads into Southeast Asia, strengthening ties through the use of foreign direct investment and government-backed loan packages to boost economic growth among its poorer neighbors.
Analysts say that growing political influence is an inevitable by-product of such growing ties.
Banning a movement
China banned the Buddhist-based spiritual movement Falun Gong in July 1999 after the group staged a massive silent protest outside the main leadership compound in Beijing.
The central authorities then launched a nationwide campaign against any activities it designated to be those of an "evil cult," jailing hundreds of Falun Gong followers and sending thousands to labor camps without trial, according to exiled rights groups.
Some of those jailed were followers of other spiritual groups which the authorities accused of peddling superstition and misleading their followers, often for money.
The official Chinese media have consistently portrayed Falun Gong as a fringe, fanatical sect.
Followers describe Falun Gong as a set of mostly age-old practices aimed at self-improvement through physical exercises and spiritual beliefs.
The movement claims tens of millions of followers in China, and millions more in other countries.
Vietnamese Falun Gong followers say they have also been subjected to harassment and torture for their beliefs.
Reported by Thao Dao for RFA's Vietnamese service. Written in English by Luisetta Mudie.