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October 9, 2009: Six Peaceful Activists Sentenced For Pro-Democracy Activities

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Photo credit: BBC News/AFP. Graphic by The Vietnamese Magazine.

What happened? 

On this day, 12 years ago, a group of six democracy activists was sentenced to prison, with sentences ranging from two years to six years in prison, in addition to various months or years of house arrest. Their sentences prompted criticism from many international organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders

These activists were arrested earlier in 2008 for hanging pro-democracy banners on a bridge along the Hanoi-Hai Phong Highway. The government accused them of “spreading propaganda against the government and Communist leaders” under Article 88 of the 1999 Penal Code. Article 88 was one of the most frequently used charges to silence political dissent in Vietnam during the last decades. 

The group of six activists includes well-known activist and novelist Nguyen Xuan Nghia, activist Nguyen Van Tinh, land rights activist Nguyen Kim Nhan and Nguyen Van Tuc, ex-Communist member Nguyen Manh Son, and Ngo Quynh, a university student. Nghia and Tuc are alleged to be members of Bloc 8406, a pro-democracy organization that used to be prominent but was violently suppressed during the early 2010s. At the time of the arrests, most of the activists were already in their 60s, but Ngo Quynh was only 25 years old. 

Following the trial of these activists, other democracy activists were also sentenced in 2010, including teacher Vu Hung, blogger Pham Thanh Nghien, and activist Pham Van Troi. According to the BBC Vietnamese, the intensified crackdown of pro-democracy activities was due to the approaching Communist Party Congress in 2011. 

While it has been more than a decade since the sentencing of the above activists, it is essential to remember that the Vietnamese government continues to crack down on peaceful pro-democracy activists and give them unjust sentences for their political longevity. 

Where are these activists now? 

The six activists detained in 2009 were all subsequently released when their prison terms ended between 2011-2014.  

However, Nguyen Kim Nhan was arrested again in 2011, almost immediately after he was released from prison upon completing his 2-year sentence; he received another nearly six years in prison. 

Nguyen Van Tuc, released in 2012, is currently in prison after being accused of “aiming to overthrow the government” in 2018 under Article 79 of the 1999 Penal Code. Tuc received a sentence of imprisonment for 13 years, and his family members have spoken out about his deteriorating health behind bars. 

Nguyen Xuan Nghia, the activist who received the longest sentence of six years in 2009, was again harassed by the police in 2018 for “storing banned books.”

Examining the life of the democratic activists who have served years in prison shows us that the government has never treated them with respect despite how peaceful, intellectual or patient. It is as if the government is sending a clear political message: you have to be on our side, or we will eliminate you. 

While the article today is about the sentencing of activists from twelve years ago, we keep seeing similar treatment patterns with democracy activists or writers throughout recent years. 

Citations:

  1. BBC News Tiếng Việt. (2011, June 8). Ông Nguyễn Kim Nhàn bị bắt. https://www.bbc.com/vietnamese/vietnam/2011/06/110608_nguyenkimnhan_arrest
  2. BBC News Tiếng Việt. (2012, September 10). Nhà bất đồng chính kiến ra tù. https://www.bbc.com/vietnamese/vietnam/2012/09/120910_dissident_released
  3. BBC News Tiếng Việt. (2018b, April 10). 13 năm tù cho nhà hoạt động Nguyễn Văn Túc. https://www.bbc.com/vietnamese/43710106
  4. B.T. (2009, September 7). Tổ chức Phóng Viên Không Biên Giới (RSF) kêu gọi Việt Nam trả tự do cho các blogger. RFI Tiếng Việt. http://www1.rfi.fr/actuvi/articles/118/article_5213.asp
  5. Human Rights Watch. (2009, August 19). Vietnam: Release Peaceful Democracy Advocates. https://www.hrw.org/node/237562/printable/print
  6. Human Rights Watch. (2020, October 28). Vietnam: Free Political and Religious Detainees. https://www.hrw.org/news/2011/04/07/vietnam-free-political-and-religious-detainees#
  7. Nhân Dân. (2012, November 2). Y án sơ thẩm đối với bị cáo Nguyễn Kim Nhàn và đồng bọn trong vụ án tuyên truyền chống Nhà nước. https://nhandan.vn/thoi-su-phap-luat/y-an-so-tham-doi-voi-bi-cao-nguyen-kim-nhan-va-dong-bon-trong-vu-an-tuyen-truyen-chong-nha-nuoc-387812/
  8. Pham, N. (2009, October 9). Six Vietnamese activists jailed. BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/8299406.stm
  9. Radio Free Asia. (2020a, October 11). Cựu tù chính trị-nhà văn Nguyễn Xuân Nghĩa bị bắt đi làm việc. https://www.rfa.org/vietnamese/news/vietnamnews/Former-political-prisoner-summoned-05232018100346.html
  10. Radio Free Asia. (2020b, October 11). Sức khỏe tù chính trị Nguyễn Văn Túc tồi tệ thêm. https://www.rfa.org/vietnamese/news/vietnamnews/ailing-political-prisoner-nguyen-van-tuc-health-worsened-in-prison-03152019083039.html
  11. Radio Free Asia. (2020c, October 11). Tù nhân lương tâm Nguyễn Kim Nhàn được trả tự do. https://www.rfa.org/vietnamese/news/vietnamnews/conscience-prisoner-nknhan-get-early-release-2-months-10072016085459.html 

On This Day

October 15, 2008: Two Journalists Worked For State-Owned Media Sentenced After Exposing Major Corruption

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From left to right: Nguyen Viet Chien on trial and portrait of Nguyen Van Hai (credit: AFP/Tuoi Tre). Background: BBC News Vietnamese. Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine.

What happened? 

On this day, 13 years ago, journalists Nguyen Viet Chien and Nguyen Van Hai were sentenced by the Hanoi People’s Court under Article 258 of the Penal Code for “abusing democratic freedom to infringe upon the interests of the state.” Nguyen Viet Chien was sentenced to two years imprisonment, and Nguyen Van Hai was given 24 months of probation.

The two had written about a prominent million-dollar corruption scandal related to the Ministry of Transportation. The scandal (abbreviated PMU-18), which started in 2006, involved state funding to gambling on football games, resulted in the arrest of many senior Communist Party members. Chien and Hai were arrested after the Transportation Deputy Minister was cleared of all charges due to a “lack of evidence.” 

The unique part of this story is that both of the journalists worked for the state-controlled press. Chien worked for Thanh Nien, while Hai worked for Tuoi Tre. Their sentences were considered “light” since charges under Article 258 could lead to 7 years imprisonment. In January 2009, Chien was released early as a part of presidential amnesty celebrating Lunar New Year. 

After they were arrested in May 2008, a lot of state-controlled press sided with the two journalists. For example, Thanh Nien News posted an article titled “Phải trả tự do cho các nhà báo chân chính” (“Free the innocent journalists”), directly advocating for the release of Chien and Hai. Cong An Nhan Dan (The People’s Police), a platform infamous for its antagonizing depiction of jailed journalists, though not directly advocating for their release, wrote a neutral article about Chien and Hai and expressed positive comments about the two, for example, calling them “leading writers in anti-corruption.” 

Reportedly, the state ordered state media to stop commenting on the case, though the articles mentioned were not deleted. This is one of the rare cases where the state-controlled media sided with convicted journalists, exposing a conflict between journalistic ideals and the authoritarian state’s orders. Compared with other cases of dissident journalists during the same time, Nguyen Viet Chien and Nguyen Van Hai received much lighter sentencing. 

Though the two journalists received very light punishment compared to other dissident journalists, the case still shows that Vietnam is willing to punish journalists who speak out against authority, even if they have enormous public support and tell the truth. 

The public outcried and supported the jailed journalists during this period. However, their sentencing also showed that the hard-line anti-corruption narratives in recent years among Party’s senior officers, such as Secretary-General Nguyen Phu Trong, could only be a farce. 

Citations

  1. BBC News. (2006, April 4). Vietnam ministry hit by scandal. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/4874600.stm
  2. BBC News Vietnamese. (2008a, May 26). Bác đơn bảo lãnh phóng viên. https://www.bbc.com/vietnamese/vietnam/story/2008/05/080526_reporterarrest_update
  3. BBC News Vietnamese. (2008b, August 15). Tuyên án đối với hai nhà báo. https://www.bbc.com/vietnamese/vietnam/story/2008/10/081015_trial_latest
  4. Công An Nhân Dân Online. (2008, May 12). Hai nhà báo viết về vụ PMU18 bị bắt. https://cand.com.vn/thoi-su/Hai-nha-bao-viet-ve-vu-PMU18-bi-bat-i126647/
  5. International Federation for Human Rights. (2008, October 6). Arbitrary detention of journalists and bloggers. https://www.fidh.org/en/region/asia/vietnam/Arbitrary-detention-of-journalists
  6. Nguyen, S. (2021, October 10). October 9, 2009: Six Peaceful Activists Sentenced For Pro-Democracy Activities. The Vietnamese Magazine. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2021/10/october-9-2009-six-peaceful-activists-sentenced-for-pro-democracy-activities/
  7. PEN America. (2009, January 26). Journalist Released. https://pen.org/rapid-action/journalist-released/
  8. Thanh Niên. (2008, May 14). Phải trả tự do cho các nhà báo chân chính. https://thanhnien.vn/phai-tra-tu-do-cho-cac-nha-bao-chan-chinh-post197670.html 

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On This Day

July 24, 2012: China Establishes Sansha City, Intensifying The Maritime Conflict With Vietnam

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Photo credit (from left to right): Str/AFP, Xinhua, Stringer/Reuters. Background: Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).

What happened?

On July 24, 2012, China established a prefecture-level city called Sansha City (in Vietnamese: Thành phố Tam Sa) under Hainan Province, the most important strategic location for China to push territorial claims in the South China Sea [1]. 

Sansha City covers 800,000 square miles of China’s nine-dash line map of claimed territories in the South China Sea, and it is 1,700 times the size of New York City, even though it mostly covers seawater. [2] According to China analyst Zachary Haver in a US Naval War College report: “through Sansha’s system of normalized administrative control, China is gradually transforming contested areas of the South China Sea into de facto Chinese territory.” [3] In other words, through the establishment of Sansha City, China is signaling that it is here to stay. 

The establishment of Sansha City has been extremely controversial in Vietnam because the city includes the Paracel and Spratly Islands, which Vietnam also contests as its rightful territory, along with other countries such as Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. 

What did Vietnam say? 

As expected, Vietnam did not take the news lightly. In 2020, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman said that Vietnam wholeheartedly rejected the “so-called Sansha City” as it violates the sovereignty of Vietnam. [4] 

The presidents of the People’s Committees in Khanh Hoa and Da Nang provinces, which Vietnam claims govern the Spratly and Paracel Islands, respectively, also had the same talking point. [5] They further affirmed that the two islands are under the administration of Khanh Hoa and Da Nang provinces and not the Sansha City of Hainan Province. 

Territorial conflicts and rising anti-China nationalism

This event was just one among many others that intensified maritime conflict between China and Vietnam. Both countries have tried to establish both legal and historical claims to the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Because of the fierce conflict, many people in Vietnam have developed a unique version of nationalism: anti-China nationalism. 

Such nationalism is rooted in the reality of many Vietnamese who have held a deep-seated Sinophobic resentment towards a millennium of Chinese domination [6]. Still, this nationalism has proved to be more than about China’s military aggression. In fact, anti-China nationalism in Vietnam has been useful in anti-authoritarian mobilizations and call for better governance and democracy. Read more about the nuances around anti-China nationalism in Vietnam here

Bibliography 

[1] Li, M. (2019). Hainan Province in China’s South China Sea Policy: What Role Does the Local Government Play? Asian Politics & Policy, 11(4), 623–642. https://doi.org/10.1111/aspp.12495 

[2] Coy, P. (2021, February 19). China Has An 800,000-Square-Mile ‘City’ in the South China Sea. Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-02-19/china-has-an-800-000-square-mile-city-in-the-south-china-sea 

[3] Haver, Z. (2021, January). China Maritime Report No. 12: Sansha City in China’s South China Sea Strategy: Building a System of Administrative Control. U.S. Naval War College. https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1011&context=cmsi-maritime-reports 

[4] M.Q. (2020, October 15). Việt Nam phản đối Trung Quốc mở rộng hoạt động tại cái gọi là “thành phố Tam Sa.” Báo Thế giới và Việt Nam. https://baoquocte.vn/viet-nam-phan-doi-trung-quoc-mo-rong-hoat-dong-tai-cai-goi-la-thanh-pho-tam-sa-126319.html 

[5] Phản đối Trung Quốc lập cái gọi là “thành phố Tam Sa.” (2012, June 24). Tạp Chí Xây Dựng Đảng. http://xaydungdang.org.vn/Home/vankientulieu/Bien-dao-Viet-Nam/2012/5207/Phan-doi-Trung-Quoc-lap-cai-goi-la-thanh-pho-Tam-Sa.aspx 

[6] Lam, V. (2018, June 29). Vietnam: A month of mass protests. Lowy Institute. https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/vietnam-month-mass-protests 

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On This Day

June 21, 1925: Vietnam Revolutionary Press Day

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Photo credit (from left to right): Unknown, Ban Tuyên Giáo Trung Ương, Zing News. Photo credit (background): Báo Giao Thông. Graphic by The Vietnamese Magazine.

What is this day about? 

Almost a century ago, a newspaper called Thanh Nien published its first issue[1]. Prior to the existence of Thanh Nien, other newspapers were existing in Vietnam. But Thanh Nien was not just any newspaper. It was a newspaper founded by Ho Chi Minh – the most important revolutionary figure of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP). Hence, the day Thanh Nien published its first issue became a day to celebrate “revolutionary reporters and the press” in Vietnam.

This day is still celebrated annually in Vietnam, with articles coming from the state-controlled press commemorating how journalism in Vietnam has “propagated and spread the Party and the government’s paths, as well as reflecting the true will of people from all socioeconomic backgrounds.” [2]

Because of the day’s history, it would be a mistake to think of this day as commencing the right of free speech or free journalism in Vietnam. 

How is the state of journalism in Vietnam?

Despite the name “Revolutionary Press Day,” the state of journalism in Vietnam cannot at all be considered “free,” let alone “revolutionary.”

Ranked 175 out of 180 countries by Reporters without Borders [3], the Socialist Republic of Vietnam does not allow freedom of expression or independent journalism. While journalism is usually understood as a tool to “speak truth to power,” journalism in Vietnam is rather a propaganda tool to speak the truth according to power. 

This is because journalism in Vietnam is all state-owned. While “official” journalists in Vietnam are sometimes allowed to report corruption, criticism of the Party is strictly forbidden, and those challenging it could face the consequences.[4] 

Even among the state-owned journalism platforms, if an article is just critical of either the Party or anyone in power, it would most likely be taken down silently. [5] In more extreme cases, the authorities may punish the newspaper itself. For example, the Phu Nu newspaper was suspended for a month last year because it published a critical investigative article about the Sun Group, one of the largest corporations in Vietnam. [6]

This is further evident in the way journalism is taught in higher education. The most famous journalism school in Vietnam, the Academy of Journalism and Communication (Học viện Báo chí và Tuyên truyền), would actually be the “Academy of Journalism and Propaganda,” if the name was translated honestly from Vietnamese to English. Many university students jokingly call this school “a Party university” (trường Đảng), due to the school’s emphasis on the Party’s propaganda training. 

The state of free speech and free journalism in Vietnam is very telling when you look at the very existence of our own organization, which includes The Vietnamese Magazine and Luat Khoa Magazine. The fact is that we cannot work and register in Vietnam, people are blocked from accessing our sites and that we are one of the only remaining independent Vietnamese-run media organizations. One more fact is that other than our directors, Trinh Huu Long and Tran Quynh Vi, all of the organization’s staff writers and editors have to work in the shadows to ensure our own personal safety and the organization’s continuity. 

Since the beginning of the elections in 2021, the state has arrested independent bloggers and journalists almost every week, despite the chaotic situation with the COVID-19 pandemic. Many independent journalists have been detained. [7] Our own co-founder, Pham Doan Trang, an internationally recognized pro-democracy journalist, has also been arrested. 

Independent journalists are not the only ones arrested by the state. Sometimes, even ordinary Facebook users are detained for critical comments on social media [8]. It is estimated that since the beginning of 2021, at least 21 Vietnamese citizens have been arrested due to activities on social media. 

And there are many other examples of how independent and critical journalism in Vietnam has a very grim future [9]. 

It is puzzling to think about how Ho Chi Minh, the founder of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, advocated so much for the right to freedom of speech and journalism to see his successors doing the exact opposite. 

But why does the state have to go to such length to arrest independent journalists? Why is it so willing to damage its human rights records?

It is because the system is so corrupted with power so concentrated in the hands of certain political and economic elites, which VCP leaders know better than anyone else. They also know that if independent journalism is allowed, the people would be better informed about the system’s flaws and failures, and sooner or later, the VCP will lose its monopoly of power as the only ruling party of Vietnam. They know that their un-innovative propaganda strategies cannot compete with honest and scientific arguments that can only be nurtured under independent journalism. They know that they cannot win in a free speech environment. 

So the VCP’s fight with independent journalism is actually a desperate fight to cling to power. Do not let their brand as a “socialist” government fool you. What the VCP is doing against independent journalists is anything but what their founder Ho Chi Minh advocated for during French colonial rule. Their monopoly as the only ruling party is so important that they are willing to arrest, suppress and surveil even the smallest seeds of independent journalism and critical thought. 

This is now an authoritarian Party suppressing independent journalists. And on this day, the Vietnam Revolutionary Press Day, we hope you remember that. 

Bibliography 

[1] Những mốc son của nền báo chí cách mạng Việt Nam. (2021, June 21). Báo Tin Tức. https://baotintuc.vn/infographics/nhung-moc-son-cua-nen-bao-chi-cach-mang-viet-nam-20210621071016833.htm

[2] Nguồn gốc và ý nghĩa Ngày Báo chí Cách mạng Việt Nam 21/6. (2020, June 16). Báo Giao Thông. https://www.baogiaothong.vn/nguon-goc-va-y-nghia-ngay-bao-chi-cach-mang-viet-nam-216-d468998.html

[3] World Press Freedom Index | Reporters Without Borders. (n.d.). Reporters Without Borders. Retrieved June 21, 2021, from https://rsf.org/en/ranking

[4] Vietnam: State Violence v. Bloggers and Journalists. (n.d.). Reporters Without Borders. Retrieved June 21, 2021, from https://rsf.org/en/vietnam

[5] Chính, Y. K. (2021, June 21). Nhân ngày nhà báo, gửi lời trân trọng đến những bài báo bị gỡ bỏ. Luật Khoa Tạp Chí. https://www.luatkhoa.org/2021/06/nhan-ngay-nha-bao-gui-loi-tran-trong-den-nhung-bai-bao-bi-go-bo/

[6] Đình bản 1 tháng báo Phụ Nữ TP.HCM điện tử. (2020, May 28). Tuoi Tre Online. https://tuoitre.vn/dinh-ban-1-thang-bao-phu-nu-tp-hcm-dien-tu-2020052815202924.htm

[7] Rees, S. (2021, May 3). Independent Journalists in Vietnam: The Clampdown Against Critics Continues. The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2021/05/independent-journalists-in-vietnam-the-clampdown-against-critics-continues/

[8] The Vietnamese Magazine. (2021, June 16). Vietnam Briefing: The Election Results Are In. Here Comes 5 More Years Of Party Domination. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2021/06/vietnam-briefing-the-election-results-are-in-here-comes-5-more-years-of-party-domination/

[9] Human Rights Watch. (2020, January 23). World Report 2020: Rights Trends in Vietnam. https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/vietnam

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