Vietnam’s back-to-back arrests last week of two independent journalists sends an “extremely chilling message” to those who promote public debate in the communist-run country, a media freedom watchdog group said Tuesday.
Police in Hanoi arrested RFA blogger Nguyen Tuong Thuy Saturday, accusing the vice chairman of the Vietnam Independent Journalists Association of “making, storing, and disseminating documents and materials for anti-state purposes,” his wife told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
The May 23 arrest of Thuy, came two days after another member of the association, Pham Chi Thanh, who writes under the name Pham Thanh, on the same charges under Article 117, of the Penal Code of Vietnam.
“The almost simultaneous arrests of Pham Chi Thanh and Nguyen Tuong Thuy send an extremely chilling message to all those trying to maintain a public debate in Vietnam,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) Asia-Pacific desk.
“The fact that the government has detained these two journalists, both respected former Communist Party members who have become scathing critics of the party’s ossification, speaks volumes about the feverishness at the head of the party as it prepares for its 21st five-yearly congress in six months’ time,” he said in a statement, referring to the ruling Communist Party.
“We urge Vietnam’s commercial partners, including the European Union and the United States, to press for an end to this latest crackdown,” added Bastard.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also called for the immediate release of Thuy and Thanh, with all charges dropped. Convictions under article 117 of the criminal code, which penalizes “opposing the state of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” carry jail terms of up to 20 years, it noted.
“Vietnam must stop treating independent journalists as enemies of the state, and must allow the press to work freely and without fear of trumped-up charges and prison time,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative.
Journalist Pham Doan Trang told RFA's Vietnamese Service that things are getting worse for Vietnam when it comes to tolerating dissent and likely to get even tougher in the run up to the January ruling party congress.
“Police are not only making arrests, but also beating the arrested people and threatening and provoking their relatives,” she said.
“Freedom has always been restricted, but nowadays it seems to be narrower and there’s more and more violence. From now until the party congress, the scope of freedom can be tightened more and more, and the suppression will increase,” added Trang.
Thuy, 68, a 22-year military veteran, had been summoned by Hanoi police three times in connection with the arrest on Nov. 21, 2019 of Pham Chi Dung, the chairman of the Vietnam Independent Journalists Association, a local unsanctioned independent press group.
Dung is being held in a Ho Chi Minh City detention facility awaiting trial and has not been allowed to visit his wife or lawyers since his arrest, the CPJ said, quoting According to the association representative.
Thanh, 68, is an old Communist Party member who used to work with the state-owned Voice of Vietnam radio station before becoming a pro-democracy activist and critic of the one-party state, RSF said.
Thuy, who has written weblog commentaries on civil rights and freedom of speech for RFA’s Vietnamese Service for six years, visited the United States in 2014 to testify before the House of Representatives on media freedom problems in Vietnam.
“Over a lifetime of serving the communists, they had many ideals, but over the last 30-40 years, their faith shriveled away and now they realize how the communist regime is,” said former political prisoner and writer Nguyen Xuan Nghia.
“We’ve seen that they must pay for the change, and even be suppressed and arrested,” he told RFA.
In March, a court sentenced RFA Vietnamese blogger Truong Duy Nhat to 10 years for “abusing his position and authority” in a decades-old land-fraud case that drew international condemnation because the writer had been abducted, apparently by Vietnamese agents, in Thailand.
Prior to his disappearance, Nhat had been a weekly contributor to RFA’s Vietnamese Service. He had earlier been jailed in Vietnam from 2013 to 2015 for his writings criticizing Vietnam’s government.
Vietnam, whose ruling Communist Party controls all media and tolerates no dissent, ranks 175th of 180 countries on the 2020 RSF’s World Press Freedom Index.
According to the NGO Defend the Defenders, Hanoi has arrested at least 29 activists, including 19 bloggers, for writing posts online, and is currently detaining 238 prisoners of conscience. New York-based Human Rights Watch has said that authorities held 138 political prisoners as of October 2019.
The country has been consistently rated “not free” in the areas of internet and press freedom by Freedom House, a U.S.-based watchdog group.
Dissent is not tolerated in the communist nation, and authorities routinely use a set of vague provisions in the penal code to detain dozens of writers and bloggers.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Paul Eckert.