More international pressure is needed to stop Vietnam treating journalists as criminals, say international human rights groups in response to a growing crackdown on dissent.
At least twelve bloggers and other government critics have been arrested in the last five months. They face criminal charges that carry long prison sentences on conviction.
“It is ridiculous for the Vietnamese government to make accessing the internet and posting critical views a crime,” said Brad Adams, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
“Vietnam’s international donors and trade partners should tell the government loud and clear that they will reassess their relationships if it keeps throwing peaceful critics in prison.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also called for the immediate release of the blogger, Tran Thi Nga, and the video journalist, Nguyen Van Hoa, who have been arrested in recent days.
Both journalists had reported on the environmental campaign that is demanding accountability for a toxic spill off the central coast last year that killed millions of fish.
The Vietnamese authorities have been trying to stamp out a groundswell of discontent over their response to the disaster, which was caused by a leak from a Taiwanese owned steel plant.
Harassment, intimidation and assault
“Vietnam should join the 21st century and repeal these draconian laws from another era,” said Brad Adams.
At least nineteen bloggers were convicted and sentenced to prison terms last year, a nearly three-fold increase on the previous year.
Others suffered harassment and intimidation, were subject to arbitrary house arrest, restricted movement, or physical assault, said HRW.
The organisation’s appeal to the international community over growing repression in Vietnam is likely to fall on deaf ears.
The United States under the Obama administration, while calling for an improvement in human rights, did not tie the issue to closer economic and strategic ties between Washington and Hanoi.
The European Union and Australia have also focused on commercial ties and paid little more than lip service to the issue of rights and freedoms.
Some analysts suspect that the hardline Communist party leadership in Hanoi has been inspired by President Xi Jinping’s even larger crackdown on human rights lawyers and other dissenters in China.
That’s unlikely to change as Vietnam continues to mend fences with China, and as western countries turn in on themselves and pay less attention to the spread of democratic rights overseas.
Propaganda against the state
Hoa’s family were informed last week that the journalist had been arrested and detained under Article 258 of the penal code, which criminalises “abusing democratic freedoms”, according to the CPJ.
It was also reported that he had been assaulted during the arrest and had his equipment confiscated.
The blogger and activist, Tran Thi Nga, was arrested at her home in the north of the country and charged under article 88, which has been used to impose long prison terms on those accusing of spreading “propaganda against the state”.
She had been subject to a prolonged period of harassment, intimidation and violence in the years prior to her arrest.
The authorities frequently employ semi-official proxies to beat up and harass government critics, a tactic designed to intimidate those who use social media to challenge the Communist party’s long held monopoly on information.